Upon finishing this astonishing memoir by Jill Smith, the reader may find it difficult not to judge her as either an inspirational, deeply passionate and intuitive mystic, or a hopelessly naive, irresponsible drop-out. Or perhaps a bit of both. I know I did at first. But any opinions are rendered insignificant in light of her central achievement: walking hundreds of miles around Britain carrying much of what she owned in a rucksack, with a baby strapped to her front, as part of a devotional and very personal pilgrimage.
The motive for this epic journey is a deep, spiritual attachment to the land. The book describes this awakening as a form of self-initiation, an evolving gnosis through a series of encounters with ‘power places’ across Britain and a direct apprehension of the currents, energies, ancestors and spirits of those places.
Jill Smith was once known as Jill Bruce, through her relationship with the ‘eccentric’ artist and performer Bruce Lacey. Together they scratched out a living in the 1970s through gallery exhibitions and performance-art happenings at events such as the East Anglian Albion Faires (I was fortunate enough to attend one of the Rougham Tree Fairs in the early 80s.)
The renowned Last Barsham Faire seems to be one of the trigger-points in Jill’s awakening, coupled with a growing awareness of British earth mysteries. Her and Bruce’s performances became more ritualistic, driven by Jill, until professional and personal schisms led her to drift away from Bruce and their children; the land called to her and its pull was irresistible. In these prolonged periods of absence she walked or hitch-hiked around Britain, attending sacred sites and sleeping rough – no tent or sleeping bag; only a plastic sheet to keep the elements at bay.
Eco-feminism and the Goddess movement increasingly became part of her frame of reference, encountering the CND peace camp at Greenham Common, and meeting the likes of Monica Sjöö.
The apogee of this mystical unveiling was a decision in the mid 1980s to travel the ‘Gypsy Switch’ – a loop around Britain divided into twelve zodiacal stations, with the Derbyshire stone circle of Arbor Low at the centre. Allegedly, up to the 1920s, British gypsies would annually travel this route, spending a month at stopping places in each house. Following an initial flurry of interest from Jill’s friends, ultimately only two men accompanied her by pony and trolley on this epic undertaking. And both of these eventually faltered, leaving Jill to complete the remainder of the ritual circuit alone, save for her newly-born son. This is the most mind-boggling section of the book, inasmuch as the sheer physical, mental and emotional effort of walking hundreds of miles, weighed down with loaded rucksack, child and miscellaneous plastic bags, is overcome by Jill’s blissfully transcendent state of mind and determination to complete her ritual circuit.
It is astonishing how, for much of the time, Jill is oblivious to her obvious vulnerability as she wanders Britain’s lonely trackways, finding a corner in a quiet meadow to sleep. Perhaps this is a consequence of the trust she places in the people she meets – normal members of the public who show her kindness in the form of shelter, a bath, a cup of tea or some food. This generosity is in stark contrast to her own friends who, sometimes, come across as mean-spirited or conspiratorial.
In reading this book, anyone who can remember the 80s will feel a pang of nostalgia for those times. Even in the midst of Thatcher’s assaults on various ‘enemies within’, whether miners, peace campaigners or new age travellers, Jill offers glimpses of ways of living that would be impossible now. Yet there is an elegiac quality to Jill’s vision quest, a sense of magic and tradition – the old ways – fading from the land. Jill herself swings from melancholia to ecstasy as the tides of the seasons pass by and the wheel of the year turns. She moves through the landscape – ‘Albion’s dreaming paths’ – and the stations of the zodiac like a strange pilgrim, every step a devotional act.
Whether because of, or in spite of, the detailed minutiae of Jill’s day-to-day activities, the book is hypnotic and compelling. I found myself willing her on at every turn. Some passages are painful to read as she reveals the upheavals in her personal life, of things unravelling. And as an inveterate forward-planner, my buttocks clenched on numerous occasions as Jill launched into new impromptu escapades; on one occasion she embarks on a journey to the Hebrides – her spiritual home – with little money, no means of travel and nowhere to sleep. On another she throws some clothes in a bag and, with baby son Taliesin, boards a plane for a trip to Australia. Her diet of fish and chips also gave me cause for concern.
Yet there is wisdom, passion, humour, grit and determination behind this seemingly haphazard life; my abiding feelings are of respect and admiration for this extraordinary woman. She hopes that, one day, someone will follow in her footsteps and recreate her visionary journeys. I doubt whether few people have fortitude to do so. Fewer still will possess the purity of intent to endure its ordeals. Regardless, this book surely provides sufficient inspiration for seekers of the Way to stride out into the land in silent contemplation, in order to gain solace and wisdom.