The start of February brings with it the half-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, where the first stirrings of life begin to show themselves - buds on the trees, snowdrops in the garden, that sort of thing. If you're a Christian, you probably refer to this time as Candlemas, or St Brigid's Day. If you're of the Pagan persuasion, it's Imbolc.
Now, I have observed this turning point for a number of years, but had only recently heard about the Marsden Imbolc Fire Festival. This is a celebration which has been growing in stature since it was established 20 years ago, and now draws in folklorists, pagans and other curious types from all over the country. I fit a number of those descriptions and so have been eager to head over the Pennines to see what all the fuss is about.
Last year I must admit to chickening out, due to the appalling rain that had been forecast. Shamed by this failure, this time around I expressed the intention that, even if the weather turned out to be awful, I would still turn out. That was several weeks ago, and before the snows of the weekend just past were even a glint in the weatherman's eye. As this year's festival drew nearer and the band of snow approached the country I began to question the wisdom of my earlier bravado, but the word had been spoken. To Marsden I would go, whatever the weather held in store...
The snow started to fall late on Saturday morning, around eight hours before the start of the festival. I had originally planned to drive into Manchester and to catch a train up into the hills, but the price and logistics of parking in the city centre and the uncertainty of the trains in bad weather meant the best option was to try to get there by car. By mid afternoon the snow was heavier, and so I packed a shovel in the boot; filled the car with food, water and warm things; and set off.
To get to Marsden you need to head up into the Pennines. I left the M62 at Milnrow and headed towards Newhey. There were very few cars on the road and the conditions were poor; the snow was steady, the road slushy and a layer of ice was forming in the tyre-tracks left by previous motorists. At Ogden Reservoir I pressed the button which turns my car into a 4WD, questioned the sanity of my expedition, and started up the long climb. I reached Denshaw without any problems, but as I progressed towards Diggle the road became slippier and I half-expected to see the flashing signs at the foot of the climb to Standedge telling me to go no further.
The climb over to Marsden took a long time, and it was only at the top that I realised that perhaps I was going to get there in one piece. At the very crest, where the Pennine Way crosses the A62, what should come steaming over the brow, lights blazing merrily, but the 184 bus from Huddersfield to Manchester. A double decker, to be precise. The driver and his passengers looked happy enough, so conditions couldn't be that bad over the top!
I made it to Marsden with ten minutes to spare. As I edged along untreated roads towards the station I could hear the loud beating of drums, and upon finding the massive car park almost empty I began to wonder just how many hardy souls were going to brave the cold of such a wintry evening. I needn't have worried; even though the snow was falling quite heavily by this stage, there were still a few hundred people, wrapped up tightly, lanterns in hand, following the line of torch-bearing 'druids' as they set off towards the Standedge Tunnel End.
I fell into step behind a group of drummers, beating out a steady pace along the slippy cobbles. One girl ahead of me was dancing along with the rhythm, seemingly oblivious to the ice underfoot. Part of me wanted to join in, but those cobbles looked very, very slick and so I resolved to just enjoy the music, and to be ready to catch her.
As the Tunnel End drew near, everyone was funneled down the slope towards the visitor centre. At the foot of the slope was an open paddock area, the sloping bank of which was already full of dancers, swirling their torches and fire-baskets around in the driving snow. It was an incongruous sight, but oddly the brightness of the fire-dancing helped dispel thoughts of just how cold it really was!
Once the dancers had done their thing, it was time for the main event of the evening. The battle between Jack Frost and the Green Man would, symbolically at least, decide on whether the green shoots of spring would emerge this year. Though the smart money was on the Green Man to prevail as usual, there was something about the persistence of the snow which led me to wonder whether this year, for once, old Jack might just pull off a shock result. In a blaze of red flares, Jack stepped out onto the snowy slope, aided by his sinister followers.
His opponent wasn't far away. Across at the other side of the slope was the Green Man, who crossed to meet Jack in a blaze of fireworks and flares. The crowd began to cheer loudly (though it must be noted a few were backing the underdog) and the scene was set for the seasonal showdown. The two sides clashed in the middle of the slope. Gradually the Green Man began to push his rival back to where he had come from. Two thirds of the way along, Jack Frost turned and fled. The crowd cheered louder and the Green Man headed back to the centre of the field to stand in triumph, as a great fiery tableau was lit behind him and fireworks crackled overhead.
As the assembled throng ooh-ed and aah-ed along with the display, the odd whisper was heard amongst us which crept across the crowd. Gradually we all realised - when Jack Frost had turned tail and run, the snow had stopped falling. Synchronicity in action, or perhaps there is something in all of this after all...
Heading back along the route the procession had taken I took time to enjoy the moonlit beauty of this pleasant little town, nestled between the snowy slopes of the Colne Valley. Part way along the track was a cheerful well-dressing, created
by the Huddersfield Area Pagans that day, and largely missed by the
massive throng as it passed by.
When I made it back to the car there was time to grab a little food and drink amongst the crowds in the Railway pub before heading home. I had intended to head down the valley to Huddersfield to pick up the motorway there, but the RAC Traffic app told me the M62 was shut due to a jack-knifed lorry. So - up and over Standedge it was to be once more!
The road was just as slippy on the return journey and I half expected to see the remains of the 184 bus adorning one of the tighter corners. Despite this, however, I made it back across to Lancashire in one piece, with the only terrifying moments down to the ludicrous driving of various white van men, for whom icy roads are no reason to travel below 50mph.
Now, a day later, most of the snow here has gone and my trip across the Pennines seems somehow more distant, and slightly unreal. I do hope to return to Marsden to see the battle between Winter and Spring again some day, and perhaps next time the Green Man will start with slightly less of a disadvantage.
So, here's to green shoots, new life, and to warmer days.