Memories of Olivia, Poppy & Derry and Huntington Castle for Olivia Robertson’s Memorial London February 2014
Caroline has asked me to write a little about my memories of Olivia, Poppy and Derry.
I first met Olivia in 1968 in the home of the old Chief Druid, Ross Nichols. He lived in Gledstanes Road, a gloomy red-brick street in Baron’s Court, West London: Bloodstains Road, as Olivia called it.
Ross held his Order’s ceremonies of Imbolc and Samhain in the basement of the house. Before each ritual, guests would gather upstairs in the sitting room, and in an awful rite of passage for a sixteen year-old, I was sent upstairs from the basement in a blue tabard to hand out peanuts to the guests. It was in this role that I first met Olivia, who invited me to visit her home in Ireland, to experience the new venture she had started with her brother Lawrence, and sister-in-law Pamela, who we all called Poppy: The Huntington Castle Centre for Meditation and Study.
I visited the castle that summer, and again the next year. On my third visit, in 1971, when I announced I was due to leave the following morning, Poppy looked at me with her large eyes and simply said “Why must you go?” And I told her I had to return for my second term at university. “Where would you be happier?” she asked, continuing to look directly at me. “Why, here of course!” I said, as I started to sense my world turning upside down. “Then stay,” was all she said. “But I can’t! I can’t stay here forever,” I replied, and she just said, “Yes you can, you can stay here for the rest of your life if you like.” And in that moment I took the decision to stay, and in doing that my life changed utterly.
That conversation epitomises the character and soul of Poppy, Derry and Olivia. It was a statement, in the final analysis, of unconditional love, of complete acceptance. No strings were attached to their invitation, no requests for work or money. It was an extraordinary thing to say, a mad thing to say, to a young man who had contributed nothing practical or financial, who they simply liked and were happy to have live with them. I hitchhiked back to England, collected my bags from the University halls, infuriated my parents with the news, and returned to the castle a few weeks later.
And there it seemed I was granted time between incarnations – one life ended, and I spent time in the Otherworld, reviewing that life, preparing for the next. I no longer know whether I stayed six months or six years. I think perhaps it was nine months, but I can’t be sure. But I do know that leaving the castle and being born again into the world was difficult but necessary.
During the time I was there, about five staff worked at the castle: Mick and old Eddy who worked in the garden and on the farm, Molly and Mrs Shiels who cooked and cleaned, and Miss Fitz who lived in the lodge house and cooked the evening soup. About ten of us lived there. In addition to the three adults, and Poppy & Derry’s four children, Bernard McAteer and I were there as invited guests, me eighteen, Bernard in his twenties, and there always seemed to be a visitor or two, dropping in for a few days or longer. As the days passed, it often seemed as if the castle and its grounds had us under its spell. When asleep we dreamt about it, when awake we hardly ever left its grounds. On Sundays we gathered in the chapel for one of Olivia’s mystical plays. The chapel was consecrated to the Goddess, the glass roof of the passage to it painted red so it glowed, the cross knocked off by Derry one afternoon, his tattered raincoat flapping like ravens’ wings as he stood on a tall ladder. Dead on five Miss Fitz had walked up the Avenue to make the evening soup and bread. Just as she passed the chapel the final blow of Derry’s chisel did the trick and the concrete cross hurtled to the ground, missing Miss Fitz by inches. But she was deaf, and never knew how close she came to being freed of the need to make soup and bread. But perhaps that explained why, as Poppy filled our bowls that evening, the ladle drew up a pepper-pot floating in one of the best soups Miss Fitz had ever made.
In this house of dreams, Olivia insisted we defy the principle of ‘Occam’s razor’, which tells us to favour the simplest and most logical explanation for any phenomenon. Olivia felt this was a very dull approach: ‘Always choose the most esoteric, the most fanciful and exotic explanation,’ she declared. If the door suddenly swings open of its own volition, a sudden breeze is the least likely cause, a ghost eager to join our company is the far more likely explanation according to this wonderful rule for life.
The reason for the extraordinary sense of happiness and freedom that we all experienced in those days at the castle, lay in the combination of its magical setting, the wonderfully eccentric nature of the trio of elders who ran the ‘Centre for Meditation and Study’, and the way in which every day followed a unwavering structure within which it seemed we were free to do whatever we chose.
A huge pot of porridge simmered all night on the stove in the kitchen, and breakfast was a free-for-all. But at lunch, tea, and supper-time, Derry would ring the hand-bell inside and outside to summon us, and we would all gather in the dining room and eat together, Derry & Poppy at either end of the table. These three communal meal-times were the glue that bound us together: the patriarch and matriarch at each end of the table, Olivia in the middle, entertaining and enlivening us all. The conversation was civilised, eccentric, often focussed on the occult, but also down to earth and practical too. David, the eldest son, at 19, was quite naturally focussed on how on earth the whole show could stay on the road financially, and every so often he grew exasperated at the wilder, dottier topics of conversation, usually initiated by Olivia.
Before lunch one day Olivia told us in conspiratorial tones that the conversation should be as cultured as possible. Poppy and Derry’s children – David, Melian, Anna and Lucy – were all being home-schooled and Derry was currently showing a man around the castle, who seemed unusually interested in their schooling. The family was clearly being inspected by the Ministry of Education to make sure they provided a suitable environment.
We gathered for lunch and met the nervous young man from the Ministry.
“Philip do tell us again about the Picasso collection you visited in the South of France. Melian have you finished reading Plato’s Republic? Anna, are you still enamoured of the Art Nouveau style?” asked Olivia whenever the conversation flagged or seemed a little too prosaic.
Looking across at our visitor I could see he was desperately uncomfortable. When he began to mention the advantages of owning a complete edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the truth slowly dawned that he was in fact a travelling encyclopaedia salesman.
Once he had gone, we all hooted with laughter and the household relaxed once more into its deliciously freedom-loving and creative routine.
At 5pm every day Olivia and Derry would hold a meditation in the library. The floor was apparently unsafe and no more than five or six of us were allowed in the room, and there we sat, surrounded by shelves of leather-bound books, and Olivia and Derry’s collection of religious and occult works, which included books on Theosophy, Spiritualism and Magic.
Sometimes Olivia would guide us, sometimes Derry, and the thought that we could all descend into the living room below if the floor collapsed never worried us. We were truly in the Otherworld, and even the knowledge that Derry had expunged every reference to God in the bibles and religious texts in the library didn’t seem particularly odd. After experiencing Deity as Feminine, Derry had resigned as a minister of the Church of Ireland, and had taken a scalpel and felt-tip pen to the books, either cutting out the offending word or simply blacking it out, wherever he could find it.
One morning I was woken by Derry standing beside my bed with a pot of paint. “Don’t get up. Just carry on sleeping. I’ve been told that a black line painted in every corner will open things up.” And he proceeded to paint a thin black line all the way down the wall at each corner of the room. As I lay there half asleep, I thought I understood what he was doing. The walls opened out like the sides of a cardboard box standing in a field of stars. He was letting the Goddess Nuit in.
And Derry would sit silently, majestically – he always held himself well – during the Sunday sessions in the chapel temple. Bernard made lutes, and provided the musical accompaniment. Around the walls hung images of goddesses – little shrines, candles, flowers. Olivia would begin, calling upon Deities and spirits, giving us instructions on what to do and say in the mystic play. Sometimes she would tell stories, and when it was over we would go downstairs for Sunday lunch – which was always vegetarian, as were all the meals.
Amidst all this eccentricity, Poppy was completely accepting and supportive, and yet at the same time she also seemed slightly detached – as if she held her own counsel, and knew her own strength, which was to be as loving and as open as possible. And what a perfect triad that made: a brother and sister as eccentric as could be, and then Poppy – always ready to listen, to offer advice, to console.
The young people had their own sitting room upstairs. The three grown-ups had theirs downstairs, and Olivia also had her own sitting room across the hall, between the dining room and the conservatory. Their routine involved listening to the radio at ‘elevenses’ when tea and biscuits were brought up from the kitchen. I only remember Derry venturing into our sitting room once. He wanted to hear some of the Beatles’ music. We played him some tracks, he listened intently, and then left us, having seemingly appreciated this brief immersion in the youth culture of the day.
I remember Derry announcing that he hadn’t been as far as the village for two years. Olivia was more adventurous – she spent her winters in a rented room in West London, and arrived each spring at the castle. We knew when she had arrived because she went briskly through the corridors with bleach, pouring it down each toilet in a ritual of spring cleaning.
A few years after I left the castle, I heard a delightful story about the time Mick Jagger paid a visit. As Olivia was showing him around the temple, she asked “And what do you do, Mr Jagger?” “I make music,” he replied. “And have you had any success with this?” was Olivia’s apparently innocent response. It must have been so refreshing for him to hear this. He smiled and said, “Yes, I’ve been quite successful.” Knowing Olivia, though, and her ability to be mischievously humorous, it’s also quite possible that she knew exactly who he was, and was simply entertaining him with her presumed ignorance of his fame.
On meeting Olivia for the first time, many people probably thought she was simply a ‘dotty’ woman (to use one of Olivia’s favourite words). But anyone who spent a little time with her discovered that she was, in fact, extremely knowledgeable and highly perceptive. A combination of psychic ability, intuition and learning made her a formidable opponent in any discussion. When she appeared on Channel Four’s ‘After Dark’ late night programme in 1988 to debate with a priest, a psychologist, a Satanist, and Margot Adler, she displayed more erudition and more knowledge of the Bible than all of them put together.
Back at the castle in the 1970s, esoteric teachers were invited over to give talks. I remember Gerald Gough, a member of the Fraternity of the Inner Light who had worked with Dion Fortune, speaking to us about elemental beings, and Ross Nichols, my Druid teacher, talking on Druidism. One day we went for a walk in the gardens – once formal, but by then much overgrown. We entered a majestic grove of tall cedars and Ross whimsically caressed a hanging bough, which promptly crashed to the ground within inches of Olivia. He hadn’t noticed that it had already fallen from the tree and was suspended precariously above us. “You could have killed me, Ross!” shrieked Olivia, before we spent some time calming ourselves in meditation in the grove.
While Ross provided me with scholarly and serious instruction, Olivia’s teachings, conveyed informally in countless conversations – at meal-times, passing on the stairs, sitting in the library – were full of wit and colour. And it was Olivia who initiated me into the reality of the Otherworld through her special technique of guided meditation. I had tried to meditate for the first time after reading about the Buddha. On meeting Ross, I attended his fortnightly group meditations in Gledstanes Road, but he asked us to focus on static visual symbols and that was hard. During my first term at University I was initiated into the Transcendental Meditation technique and found this deeply relaxing and restorative: it took me to levels of consciousness where I seemed to experience no form – I floated in a pleasing sensation of nothingness.
At the castle, Olivia was developing a method of intensive one-to-one guided meditation, which she offered to show me. We retired to the library one evening. She locked the door to prevent unwanted intrusions, and began with a ritual as I sat in the centre of the circle. She was ‘The Operator’, in her terminology, I was ‘The Percipient’. She blessed me with water, channelled energy into my aura, and asked me to lie on the couch. She then seated herself beside me like an analyst with her patient, and proceeded to talk me through a visualisation. Lying down, relaxed and already in an altered state of consciousness from the ritual, and the aura ‘brushing’ as she called it, it was easy to enter a dream-like state of consciousness. Every so often, though, she would ask me a question, which she would repeat until I replied, and so – unable to go to sleep – I was obliged to maintain my rational awareness while quickly any sense of my physical body slipped away from me. As a result, I found to my astonishment that I was conscious while in my dream-body, my astral body, which was now free to explore the Otherworld. There I met inner guides and elemental beings, and visited worlds which until then I had never been sure really existed. We made many journeys, each of which Olivia recorded in longhand, and I typed up afterwards. After some months, she taught me how to take the role of ‘Operator’ and I recorded her journeys, which she then typed out. When I was back in London we continued working together – alternating roles of Percipient and Operator. After our journeys we would go out for supper to a vegetarian restaurant near Fulham Road.
Twenty years after my stay at the castle, I returned with Stephanie, and we were handfasted in the temple and blessed by old Brady in the abbey ruin (in reality a folly built beside the castle). Brady claimed he was the last in a line of hereditary Druids. At that time Olivia was fond of recording impromptu mystical plays on audio-cassette, and the three of us made a recording in the grown-ups sitting room. Poppy had died, and Derry had just undergone serious dental work. It was difficult for him to talk, and he was undoubtedly feeling pretty miserable.
One evening during that visit, the one remaining member of staff told Olivia that someone from the village was at the door wanting a tarot reading: “They have brought a bottle for you, Miss Olivia” she said. “Show her in,” said Olivia who then told us that she didn’t believe in using the tarot like some form of psychotherapy, which was the fashion these days: “I just tell them what’s going to happen.”
It took another twenty years to visit the castle again, but this time it was to say goodbye.
On the day before her funeral, Olivia lay in an open wicker coffin in her sitting room, white lilies beside her, candles burning, the mirrors in the room covered with white sheets, a honey-coloured spaniel asleep on the floor at the head of her coffin.
An atmosphere of peace filled the room. Olivia now looked so different from how she had seemed in life. There was a solemn dignity in her face. She looked truly like a priestess, and like Derry too. The spaniel lay so still – as if in spirit it was accompanying Olivia to the Otherworld.
Sitting in the peace of her room it was easy to remember her and to sense her talking. Was it my imagination? Was it a real contact with her in Spirit? Olivia had taught me not to worry about such things, and so there she was, saying: “Don’t think of me as dead, that’s not the way to go about this at all. I’ve woken up. I’m alive! Dying is a joyous process, a birth in the Other World. You must always remember that, and allow your imagination and your psychic faculties free rein. Think of it as painting with the brightest colours you can imagine. You have complete freedom in the imagination and in the Otherworld. Don’t let other peoples’ opinions concern you. They may say you’re dotty or weird, but it doesn’t matter a hoot. Allow yourself to be as creative as you like, and always remember that in being creative you have complete freedom.”
Next door in the dining room were tea and cakes. Olivia’s family and friends were there alongside neighbours from the village. This was a wake in the traditional Irish style, held before rather than after the funeral.
The castle was looking glorious in bright winter sun, its flag at half mast, and the trees in their full autumn colours. The maple by the castle gate shone like a red sun. Olivia had left with the fall of the leaves, a few weeks after Samhain, and a few weeks after she had suffered a stroke. Even though 96 years old, up until then she had been leading her usual busy life, writing letters, composing liturgies, painting and leading, as always, the Fellowship of Isis. But now, no longer able to work in the world, she had slipped away while sleeping.
The day after the wake, we gathered in the basement of the castle, for a moving Fellowship of Isis ritual. Surrounded by her paintings and the powerful atmosphere of the temple, the harp music and the words of the ritual brought a strong sense of Olivia in spirit as we wished her well on her journey. We then followed the priestesses and priest out of the temple. Accompanied by two drummers, Julie Felix sang with her guitar, and we joined in as we took the 900 year-old yew walk through the castle grounds to wait by the gate.
Soon the piper arrived, and Olivia’s great-nieces carried her coffin to the waiting hearse. The piper led the procession as a hundred or so mourners followed the hearse down the great Lime avenue that leads from the castle to the village of Clonegal, and then up through the main street to St.Fiaac’s church.
In the temple we had been told that Olivia wanted ceremonies of the Goddess and the God, and so we all filled the church, and a Church of Ireland funeral service followed. Her niece, Anna Currey, gave a eulogy which managed to convey a strong sense of Olivia’s character and uniqueness, and the coffin was then carried outside by her great-nephews in the fading afternoon sun. As the priest recited the final prayer and his words floated across the crowd, ‘Like a flower we blossom and then wither, like a shadow we flee and never stay,’ a gust of wind picked up hundreds of golden leaves and showered them over the grave and all those standing beside it. And the last word was with the Goddess – Julie Felix picked up her guitar and sang the familiar Irish blessing ‘May the Road Rise up to Meet You’, singing the final line as: ‘and until we meet again, may the Goddess hold you in the palm of Her hand.’
Somewhere Olivia was smiling, standing alongside Poppy and Derry – the three of them together again, celebrating a long journey, a journey home.
Pukerua Bay, New Zealand