Thirteen Moons Autumn Festival on Dartmoor

Reviewed by Michele Darnell-Roberts

Detail of a shrine at Lower Merripit Farm, on the festival siteThe Thirteen Moons festival took place from noon on Friday 19th  to midnight on 21st September and was organised by Carolyn Hillyer. The festival was held at Lower Merripit Farm, Postbridge, an area of outstanding natural beauty in the wild heart of the moors.

Carolyn has been living at Merripit Farm for 13 years. Apparently the name of the festival primarily comes from the cycle of 13 moons we have each year and also, coincidentally, because she is celebrating her 13th year on the land. Amnesty International was supported by the festival in its campaign work against violence towards women. A donation was given from every ticket, and also from profits from the Sunday evening bar.

What made this camp particularly special for me was that it was a festival for women, run by women; women musicians, women speakers, women trading their creative wares, women making presentations and women site crew. Women came from far and wide, even from Australia. Over 300 women were there, and the combined energy of so many women was truly empowering.  After a dull and rainy summer in the UK, the weather that weekend was perfect. How lucky we were!

The festival campI went to the festival with my daughter Nicole (20), instinctively knowing that the weekend for us both would be enjoyable, even life-changing. Nicole and I stayed in the “inside accommodation” offered. This was the local youth hostel, Bellever. Camping facilities were also available on the farm, but no hot showers. Instead, a camper could have a “Dartmoor Zing” – a cold shower. The screams of some of the women experiencing this will stay with me forever!

From the very beginning of the festival the programme was intense. I felt that if I took time out to get a drink from the fantastic on-site restaurant the Food Groove, or to use one of the wooden “thunderbox” toilets I might miss something special.

Initially each woman was asked to pick a badge, at random, from a bowl that was passed round. These badges were to allocate us to one of the 13 moon clans; Copper, Healers, Salmon, Weavers, Drummers, Granite, Fallen Crow, Leaping Hare, Warriors, Many Sisters, Bone, Nameless and Honey. I found myself to be a member of the Granite Moon Clan, and Nicole was in the Salmon Moon Clan.

The idea behind the Moon Clans was that during the festival participants could journey through thirteen different aspects of the moon; drawn from the nature of the wild landscape and also from the work that women have been sharing with Carolyn at Lower Merripit Farm over the last thirteen years.  Each Moon Clan had a particular slot in the programme, with a speaker and/or presentations representing the energy of that Moon.

Sadly, it would take too long to discuss all the Moon Clans, and to talk about all the women who gave input into the meaning of each Clan. However, the vibrancy, sincerity and talent of all the women who took part were heart-warming and inspirational.

On the Friday night, during Bone Moon, “remembering and honouring our ancestral mothers” we visited magical candlelit shrines placed around the farm. Jill Smith’s beautiful Fire Journey followed this. As part of the journey and the ancestral ceremony that followed, we placed either the name of the last woman in our mother line, or a photocopy of her picture, on the fire in the centre of the circle, around which we all stood. This was a deeply heart-felt experience and understandably some women shed tears.

Salmon Moon represented “dreams, intuition and creative inspiration.”  For this, on the Saturday morning, we saw Linda Muddiman Rose perform her inspiring “sacred dance prayer into the ancient dream” and heard some lovely songs by Tina Bridgman, “In the Company of You.”

On the last night of the festival each Moon Clan was asked to celebrate and share a presentation. As expected, each was wonderful in its own way. As a Salmon Moon Clan member my daughter’s group gave a presentation of salmon leaving the place where they were born, swimming out to sea and then returning to the place where they were born to lay their eggs, after which they die. Nicole told me this was likened to the life and death cycle in nature, and of course to “maiden, mother crone.”  Nicole had pink spots on her face to represent scales!

I was not surprised that I had subconsciously chosen a badge for the Granite Moon Clan, “ancient land and returning home” as I seem to be constantly yearning to connect to natural and wild country.  For Granite Moon a choice of four guided walks on the moor were available on the Sunday morning. The longest left at 6am, and lasted for 3 hours.

Nicole went on this and said that on the moor, at the top of the hill Carolyn, who was leading the walk, suggested that as this walk was described for Wild Horse Women anyone was free to run down the hill. Nicole started to run and then, galloping out of the mist was a Dartmoor wild pony. This image, to me, captures the dynamic energy of the weekend.

I and some other women did a shorter walk Soussans Stone Circle. From this beautiful place I gained inspiration that I contributed to the Granite Moon Clan presentation. For ours we stood in a circle, as standing stones. I had a grey blanket around myself, and glitter and ash on my face. We stood in silence for a while and then one of our Clan read aloud a poem, which one of our members had written. We then toned, and repeated the words “stand strong” at the end. I do feel my relationship with standing-stones has now deepened through this experience.

On the Saturday afternoon for the Weavers’ Moon, “binding and using our hands” thirteen workshops were offered; medieval herbal soap, deer skin drum shields, deer toe rattles, bone amulets, copper moon bowls, clay moon goddesses, forest wands, woven dance girdles, white willow moon baskets, memory cocoons, reindeer leather pouches, silver moon jewellery and felted moon mats. This was an excellent opportunity to explore one’s creativity and, of course, to take something home. The soap I made smells exquisite, almost too good to use.

On the Saturday night, in the Drummers, Moon slot, “music, celebration and the spirit of drum” there was music and singing, culminating with the zany band Seize the Night who had come together especially for the festival. Carolyn also sang some of her songs. I will always remember her wearing a sparkling dress and singing “Menopausal Anarchy.”

On the Sunday morning, during Fallen Crow Moon, “death and shadows, ashes and earth,” a women’s retreat to the Artic Circle was presented. Some of the women who had been on this incredible journey were there, and talked about their experiences. The image of one women losing her way in the snow, fearing her death and then eventually finding her way again, was very poignant. Also, I remember hearing about the image of a white hare lying in the white artic snow, a stunning image.

During Warriors’ Moon, “injustice, responsibility and courage” (Sunday afternoon) a space was given for women to air their views about anything they felt strongly about. It was good to have this opportunity.  As part of this, a talk about the fate of independent midwives was presented. Traditional insurance companies won’t insure them and the Government have now withdrawn their support. This means independent midwives, who believe that birth is a sacred and spiritual rite of passage, are practicing without insurance. They desperately need support. After hearing a talk by the local Amnesty International representative in this slot, I have now joined this organisation.

On the last evening, during Many Sisters’ Moon, “expressions of sisterhood”, we danced and listened to the lively Wild Woman Band with Jana Runnalls. As I bought my warm harvest cider punch Carolyn was nearby, in the queue. I said to her “Thank you so much for organizing this. I’ve enjoyed every single minute.” I can’t remember ever saying that about a festival before.

©Michele Darnell-Roberts

Michele Darnell-Roberts

Michele Darnell-Roberts

Michele Darnell-Roberts has been writing poems (and stories) since she was a young teenager as a therapeutic way of understanding her feelings.  She loves imagery and symbolism and enjoys the discipline of trying to say what she feels in a concise and interesting way. Michele works as a mental health nurse for the elderly mentally ill, an experience which has led her to realise the importance of communciating one's feelings, and, as it were, "not being afraid to cry!.She is also involved in Dances of Universal Peace in which our world's spiritual traditions are danced and sung (mostly in circles) to promote both inner peace and peace in the wider community. There are some beautiful, and powerful, celtic and goddess dances!
Michele Darnell-Roberts

Latest posts by Michele Darnell-Roberts (see all)