Friday, June 21, 2013

Solstice shenanigans

Today (21st June) is of course the summer solstice, a date most people probably associate with press coverage of huge gatherings at Stonehenge, and jokes about Wicker Men on Twitter. The summer solstice always reminds me of something else entirely - my former home town of Bad Münstereifel, in Germany.

I lived in Bad Münstereifel for seven wonderful years, and my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was inspired by the town, its history and its folk legends. The book is about a series of disappearances that occur in this beautiful but seemingly sleepy little town; the heroine, Pia Kolvenbach, and her friend Stefan are inspired to investigate by the legends of the town, which suggest to them that there is some supernatural explanation behind what is going on. The legends are woven into the narrative and are all genuine local Eifel legends, retold by me. Equally, the locations that feature in the book are all real ones, down to the street names and even the locations of some of the shops and cafes. If you are interested in seeing some of them for yourself, I made a short film about these locations, which is on my YouTube channel.

One of the places that features significantly in the story is the Alte Burg or "old castle" (inventive name, no?) on the Quecken Hill close to the town. Bad Münstereifel actually has two castles, a more recent one which still stands in the town centre and houses a restaurant as well as residential flats, and the old castle, which is pretty much buried in the woods on the hill.

When I first moved to Bad Münstereifel, the old castle was quite difficult to find. It was featured in an out-of-print book called Mauern, Türme and Ruinen but the ruins were buried in deep undergrowth and were barely signposted. The one fairly intact architectural feature is a circular turret, but over the centuries this has gone from standing up out of the earth to being virtually buried in it, so that it takes the form of a pit some metres deep. When I first visited the castle, there was absolutely nothing to stop the unwary visitor from falling in. As the castle itself was off the beaten track, if you had fallen in you would very likely have waited for a long time for rescue.

Since then, the council have placed a cage over the turret to prevent accidents, and erected a nice clear signpost so that you can tell exactly where to find the castle. For me, this spoils the excitement of stumbling on it by yourself, with the added frisson of possibly falling into the turret. But at the time at which the book is set (1999-2000) none of this had been done.

This is what the castle looks like:

Apart from the turret, the most you can pick out are the mossy remains of sections of wall. The castle is over a thousand years old so I suppose it is amazing that anything remains at all! Anyway, the local legend of the "Eternal huntsman" whose ghost rides through the forest at night accompanied by spectral hounds is associated with this castle. 

And now we come to the reason why the summer solstice always reminds me of Bad Münstereifel! 
After I had first visited the old castle, I was bubbling over with the joy of discovery, and desperate to show it off to some of my friends (you have to make your own fun in small towns, you know). Eventually I managed to persuade a friend of mine to come up to the Quecken Hill to see it. 

We made our way through the undergrowth, peered down into the turret, and then wandered down the inside of the north wall (if you can call it a wall; it is more of a ridge covered in trees). And there we found this:

A stone circle! This picture was taken later, in 2010, when we were visiting from our then home in Flanders. When we first saw this circle, it was more complete, and there was a single flat stone in the middle of it. On the stone were the burnt remains of something unidentifiable. 

Evidently someone had been up here holding some kind of ritual! Maybe this shouldn't have surprised me all that much, because there is a Roman temple to the Matrones at nearby Nettersheim, and someone  leaves fruit, flowers and feathers in front of the carved figures of the goddesses. Still, it did strike me as rather creepy. It was obvious that the circle had been built recently, because it was not mossed over, and unlike the tumbledown walls of the castle it was entire. Then I realised that the date was 22nd June. It was the morning after the solstice. 

Thoroughly creeped out, we decided to leave well alone. When my friend related the story to a friend of hers, the friend said in alarm, "You didn't go inside the circle, did you???" I can't say this made me feel any better about the experience (I spent the rest of the day wondering whether I had perhaps gone inside it without noticing or something). Apart from anything else, it was the mysteriousness of the whole thing; the Eifel is a staunchly Catholic area and the castle is a very obscure and desolate spot; I couldn't think who would want to sit up there in the dark like that! 

I have never solved that particular mystery, except in the book, where I have constructed my own solution to it. But that is why the summer solstice always makes me think of Bad Münstereifel. 

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