Ross Nichols - Reminiscences
Caitlín Matthews, author of numerous books on Celtic Spirituality, and past-Presider of the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids, writes:
“I remember going to Ross's house in the early seventies, just after I'd finished drama school. It was an evening meeting of meditation into which I had somehow blagged my way. Never having meditated in any formal sense, I was very nervous of what might be expected of me. I only knew that druidism was what I must somehow follow, so I remained reserved but attentive. I was not disappointed.
"Ross was busy welcoming everyone in the big basement with its long table: most people seemed to know each other already and I was very shy. But he was so friendly and natural that I was immediately put at my ease. He winkled out of me that I was desperate to learn the harp and seemed to think that I probably would in the not too distant future. His sense of how the universe co-operates with our desires was much more pronounced than mine was then. I noticed how his lively demeanour masked something much more profound. His agility struck me: he seemed like a dancer. I wasn't so sure about the other people gathered, one of whom - a red-haired woman with a very well bred voice - leant over to me and imparted the knowledge that she felt I had been a nun in a past incarnation. A statement that left me speechless! I later discovered, on going to Clonegal Castle, that this had indeed been the redoubtable Olivia Durdin Robertson, with whom I have subsequently done much work. So it was an extraordinary evening on all counts.
"We gathered around in a circle and Ross led what I now recognize was a path-working. Ross spoke in a measured and encouraging way, without a script, as if he was leading a walk in the country. There was a point when we were free to engage with the scene into which we had been led. Something happened on a very deep level as we all waited in the stillness of contemplation. Afterwards, he asked each of us what we had experienced. I told him that when he had spoken of a plough going through the land, I found myself at the nose the plough, feeling the earth fall over my shoulders. Indeed, I seemed still to feel the gritty soil about me. He lifted his head and smiled, nodding enthusiastically, 'Yes, yes! That's because you were in the north-west!' He said it in a collegial kind of way, as if speaking to one of his peers - which is how he spoke to everyone. But for an inexperienced would-be druid, it was a revelation that not only could I meditate and that meditation did have notifiable results but that druidic teachers had not left the earth, but lived still among us.
"I feel the same now: whenever I enter the grove, Ross is still there. He is a guardian of the grove now as then."
Fantasy author Adele Cosgrove-Bray, has written an account of a meeting between Nuinn and a Canadian friend of hers, Lily:
Lily tells Adele: 'Your country has such a wonderful ancient culture, so rich with traditions, and I desperately wanted to learn more. So I approached the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids.'
'The Druids? Did you ever meet any?'
'Oh yes,' replied Lily, polishing a teaspoon before stirring it through gravy. 'I very nearly joined them too. I met a wonderful man named Philip Ross Nichols, sometime in the early 1970's. He was the Chosen Chief of the Order, and lived in a large Victorian house in the London W14 area. He was a small man, very elderly yet as agile as a little monkey. He wore delicate leather sandals and possessed the most exquisite feet I have ever seen!"
"His feet? Never mind his feet," I laughed. "What was he like?"
"Absolutely charming! Very articulate and intelligent, but also quite witty. He was a very warm, approachable gentleman with wonderful sparkling eyes. Being alone with him didn't worry me in the slightest, though I was worried about what I might be getting involved with.
"He led me down a long corridor with heavy brown lino on the floor. Closed doors led off to several rooms. The room he took me into was literally crammed with stuff, far more than mine is, if you can believe that. Animal heads were on the walls. Daggers and chalices and candlesticks caught my eyes. It looked like a Native American Indian shaman's den, full of fetishes and a skull, I think. The curtains were drawn, making the room dark despite the afternoon sun. We talked for a while. I asked if I would need to learn Welsh, and he said while it wasn't necessary, it would help."
Lily gazed out of the violet painted door to where Horus the cat groomed himself in the sun. "Then he took me into the basement. Part of it had been converted for living in. The other part housed a long, highly polished table with an assortment of dining chairs around it. At one end was a bigger chair with arms. At the other sat a lady. She was probably in her fifties and had large, beautiful eyes and a delicate facial structure. She said absolutely nothing the whole time, just watched me carefully and smiled a lot. She was introduced only as the Green Lady, though someone later told me she was a well-known actress."
Lily then went on to follow a guru who lived in Wirral. She said: "I wrote to Ross Nichols and thanked him for his kindness and his time. I really didn't expect to get any reply, but he sent me a beautiful, thoughtful letter wishing me well in my Quest."
Vivianne Crowley, Wiccan author, in the Foreword to Druidcraft by Philip Carr-Gomm, writes:
“I visited Ross Nichols, Philip’s predecessor as Chosen Chief of OBOD, thirty years ago. A wise and kindly man, he took time in his busy schedule to explain Druidry to a teenage spiritual seeker trying to find the right path.”
Philip Heselton, author of The Elements of the Earth Mysteries, and Wiccan Roots, writes:
“The only time I met Ross Nichols was rather strange in that our roles were reversed! I was the rather nervous 24-year old standing on the platform speaking and he was the member of the audience who came up to talk to me afterwards.
It was in November 1970 and I was in a panel of speakers (the others being John Michell, Jimmy Goddard and Paul Screeton) convened in the Kensington Central Library on the subject of 'Leys, UFOs and Orthoteny'.
I can't remember exactly what Ross talked to me about, but I think he became quite interested in the subject because subsequently he wrote several articles for 'The Ley Hunter' magazine.
My main impression of him was that he was very unassuming but paid full attention as we were talking, as if he was genuinely interested in what I had to say. We probably only spoke for five minutes, but I now feel most privileged that our lives intersected at that moment.”
In In the Grove of the Druids, Philip writes:
“Nuinn felt like a teacher and rather like an older relative both at once. He was there in my life without question: when I was a child through the 1950s and 60s he would visit our home and stay for hours – having long conversations with my father (usually about political history). In the early 1950s, my father worked for him as a history teacher. Later, when my father started to publish his own history magazine, Past and Future, Ross contributed a number of articles, whose variety of subject matter demonstrates his wide-ranging interests. Ross once took my father to his woodland retreat in Oxfordshire then to the Five Acres Country Club, where Ross introduced my father to Gerald Gardner, and all three swam and talked together. Ross’ woodland was right beside my godmother's house, and he had met my grandmother and aunt. As I got to know him, I never questioned the relationship - it just seemed the most natural thing in the world to visit him often - either in his house in Baron's Court or at his college in South Kensington. In that sense he was like an uncle or even grandfather - since I knew him between the ages of eleven and twenty-three, when he was between sixty-one and seventy-three years old – he was fifty years older than me. And somehow the bond between us was deeper than any conflict that occasionally occurred: sometimes the wild teenager in me found the old man infuriating, sometimes - I am sure - the Chief Druid found his pupil frustrating.
"Occasionally we met for social events – during my first marriage we used to have Ross to dinner, and one evening, with Olivia Robertson - on his invitation - we watched the Japanese Kodo drummers play at the Round House. But most of the time our meetings were for the serious business of learning. He was there to teach me, and I was his pupil. He was used to dealing with pupils, since he taught all day long at his college. I would arrive at his house, often on my way back from school in the late afternoon, and he would make us both a cup of tea, and then he would read to me: often from essays such as those in this volume. As he read, he would make comments, or scribble explanatory diagrams - which I have kept to this day. When the essay finished, he would carry on talking, or would make a snack while I had to read some other material. Eventually I would go home, with a copy of the paper he had read, together with his notes and diagrams.
"When I knew him, he was a 'relaxed vegetarian' - in other words he was mostly vegetarian, but would not refuse a sausage or a slice of bacon. one day, he broke his usual habit of only discussing Druidry and related subjects with me, and instead gave me a lesson on how to make a nut cutlet.
"He was a teacher to me - not a guru. He didn't try to be a guru, and later - when I followed one for a while - I realised the difference. Ross offered culture rather than charisma. My guru offered plenty of charisma, but precious little culture, and although charisma may be superficially more appealing, in the end it is the culture in a person that endures. And it is the gifts of their culture that become their contribution to the world that outlasts their mortal lives.”
Marian Green, editor of Quest magazine, and author of many books including A Witch Alone, writes:
I first encountered Druids at their ritual at Stonehenge in the early 1960s. A friend of mine from London had met some of the grove and was invited to join in the Midsummer celebrations. He asked if I would like to go and I did. We all gathered for the coach that was to take us to the stones on the evening before midsummer's day, as in the pre-motorway days, few people in London had cars. Stopping off at Hartley Wintney for a break some of the Druids went to a nearby oak tree to cut leafy branches for their ritual. During the journey the small band of actual druid members asked if anyone else was willing to participate in the ritual, to make up sufficient numbers. Both my friend and I offered to join in.
We were told as we Journeyed west that there would be three ceremonies, at midnight outside the circle of Stonehenge, then before sunrise at the centre, and again at noon, within the looming pattern of great trilithons. Because I was very young, and people were far more formal than they are today, no one was introduced by name, and when we were given instructions we would follow them to the letter. The druids on the coach were friendly, sharing sandwiches and drinks as we arrived at the carpark.
The Chosen Chief of the Druid Order at that time was still Robert MacGregor-Reid, an imposing man in his long white robe and headdress, and carrying a crook as a symbol of office. Druids were appointed as banner bearers, as a Herald and a Swordbearer. To a complete novice like me this was all absolutely fascinating, and the thought of having to stay up all night was seen as great fun. It was pitch dark when the first procession set off, under a bright and starlit sky. We seemed to walk miles up a rough track until we were mustered into a circle around what, seen in day light, turned out to be a grassy round barrow. The white robed druids took their places and performed a ceremony concerned with the dead and with remembrance. It was hard to hear what was said in the wind and darkness, buy the sky was so bright you could see the Milky Way. After a while the procession reformed and led us back to the shelter of the coach for a few hours before the Sunrise ritual.
Long before the first glimmer of daylight we were told what we would have to do. I was an assistant to one of the Banner Bearers, and had to cling on to a rope to stop it blowing away in the wind. I was lent a white robe and got into line as the Sword Bearer and Herald led us among the stones. There were few people apart from the twenty or so actual Druids plus the rest of us who came on the coach or joined later. The only sign of the Law was a single policeman on his bike and everyone was free to wander among the great sarsens without any kind of fence or barrier.
The ritual proceeded and it was one of those incredible clear sunny occasions when at exactly the right moment the sun was seen to rise in a blue sky, and perch for a moment on the Heel Stone. The druids said their words, passed the crown of oak leaves to the Presider and special visitors. They made the shape of the Awen with their staves, burned incense and shared a communion.
Later, after another retreat to the coach we all gathered to salute the Noonday Sun and complete the round of rituals on a glorious midsummer day. By now a few local people and visitors to the stones had arrived to stand around the circle and watch the ceremony. Most seemed puzzled and delighted by this addition to their visit to an ancient site. At that time people still imagined that the Druids had somehow been involved in the building of Stonehenge or that it had been used for bloody sacrificial rituals. Archaeology and science have now revealed a different story.
On the coach back to London I got to hear about other ceremonies which were held by the Order in London, to mark the Equinoxes in March and September, and the midwinter solstice. After having such an exciting and uplifting time at my first Summer Solstice I was determined to participate in these other rituals. It was in London that I got to know some of the prominent figures in the Order at that time and after the death of Robert MacGregor-Reid, as an outsider, saw the division into several sections of Druid groves.
I got to know Ross Nichols during the outdoor celebrations at the equinoxes, both in London and also at Glastonbury. I was never a member of the Druids but became a Friend of the Druid Order which meant I heard about the lectures given in London and was able to join in the rituals, over a number of years. Ross always showed his deep knowledge of Celtic myth and history, and though he seemed a quiet man without the charisma of some other druids, he did know his stuff. The people around him were also scholars and several went on to write books and teach aspects of the Western Mystery Tradition. I was intrigued by all this strange information and sat through lectures, went to Glastonbury for Beltane one year and watched the ritual marking of the seasons of the year.
My favourite was always midwinter, when in a shabby room in the Caxton halls, we would watch as the lights were dimmed to complete darkness. The Druids' prayer was recited and other parts of the rite spoken by the druid officers, and then to the haunting strains of Rutland Boughton's Immortal Hour candles were lit and the great mistletoe bough was carried round, to be cut with the golden sickle and shared. I recall Ross's sharp profile, within his white nemyss, presiding over this returning of the light.
During the equinox meetings on Parliament Hill we all stood around in the cool London spring air as gradually more and more spectators appeared to watch the proceedings. Most were mystified and as both a photographer and semi-outsider, I tried to explain to people about the ancient custom of marking the equinox, by greeting the Lady of Spring with her horn of plenty.
During the 1960s there was little ritual other than that in Christian churches so the gatherings of a white robed ancient priesthood, with its poetry, harp music and ceremony was quite an eye-opener to those who witnessed the various festivals. Among those participating were Ross Nichols and Vera Chapman and others whose names I was to learn later on.
When Cadbury Castle was being examined by archaeologists to discover its construction, age and use, a number of members of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids got invited to visit this enigmatic hill top in Somerset, not too far from Glastonbury, the regular meeting place for the Beltane ritual. There were dowsers and psychics as well as Geoffrey Ashe, the Arthurian writer and historian and a number of archaeologists examining the surface of the huge hill fort. Each group was encouraged to divine, by its own means - psychic, dowsing or scientific - what was under the turf, and to report to those in charge. Most of the druid group were convinced of links to King Arthur, as Cadbury was thought to have been a fortified retreat in the 6th century, when Arthur fought his legendary battles. Later discoveries indeed proved that the high surrounding banks had been reconstructed at the right historical time, and that a great wooden gatehouse was constructed at the entrance to the earthworks. A midsummer gathering within the grassy ring with the druids marking their own connection to the Grail and Arthurian legends does stick in my mind.
Although I didn't get to know Ross Nichols as well as the members of his Order did, I am certain that he left a legacy of Druidry, its regular patterns of ritual, its celebrations of Nature and the passing seasons, its heritage of wisdom, poetry, lore and legend which will continue through the years to come. Like many other reinterpretations of ancient spiritual tradition that of the druids has a valuable gift to modern seekers. Although it can be interpreted as pagan it does not have the rigidity of some other modern pagan paths, encouraging personal study, work, learning, the knowledge of the arts, music, poetry, magic and divination skills, with its own oracles and methods. Many of these threads were spun from the knowledge, understanding and wisdom of Ross Nichols, and those who have kept the flame of OBOD alive through the passing years.