Red hearth, red heart

It’s been a summer of stories, with new projects everywhere, and I am delighted that some of these have been graced by the presence of the Red Alachigh.

“The Red what?” I hear you cry. An Alachigh is a type of Iranian nomadic tent, with curved wooden poles. But this one is made of Devon ash wood and its canvas is determinedly red. Really red. It has a story of its own.

Back in 2011, a group of women in south Devon were meeting on the old Celtic festivals to share stories, meditations and crafts, through the Wood Sisters initiatives of Sue Charman and Sam Wernham. A few of us had been inspired by Anita Diamant’s book The Red Tent. It tells the Hebrew story of a women’s monthly refuge for the tribe, a place of support and female community, celebration and creativity.

Why couldn’t we make a Red Tent? A group of us determined to do something about it, and started to fundraise. The idea is not new. There is now a global Red Tent movement, with women’s groups set up to explore the link between menstruation, retreat and female community. However, there have been fewer actual Red Tents made.

We went to woodlands in Killerton, central Devon, and cut down around forty slender ash trees. The poles were debarked and pared back, and then steam-bent using a steam box made of hay, an old radiator and some pipes. The steamed poles were bound into shape over a former, and meanwhile we commissioned two local women to sew the canvas. The final structure was about 22 feet in diameter and could seat about 35 people comfortably, more at a push. With carpets and cushions to the floor, an altar, candles, lights and chairs, we were ready to go. In total, over 50 women had contributed to the making of the tent.

Since 2012, our tent has witnessed stories from amazing tellers hailing from around the globe; dance artists and prehistoric music; weaving of wishes and sharing of grief; rousing harmony and the whisper of prayers. Our Red Alachigh is a broader interpretation of the Red Tent idea, a red space to hold the creativity of the feminine. Men are usually welcome to our events (although a few events are women-only), but the notion of a space that is led and held by women is a rare and wonderful thing in our still-patriarchal world. It is a privilege to share stories in this space.

The Red Alachigh has been to two events so far this year. The first, the Oxford Storytelling Festival in August, was a brave, brand new event at Waterperry, where we ran a programme of storytelling and creative arts by women throughout the weekend. Interestingly there were several interpretations of Hebrew stories, amongst other tales from around the world. In early September the Red Alachigh returned closer to home with a short residency at the Sands school in Ashburton, including stories from Janet Dowling and Shonaleigh Cumbers, and performance poetry from Bone Song.

Our final event of the year is at the Sharpham Estate for their Apple Day on October 7th. We will be running a programme of stories and crafts celebrating the harvest and apples. Join us and experience the wonderful Red Alachigh for yourself.

I’m very grateful to have been involved with this inspiring and heartening project, and hope that it can continue to inspire for years to come. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the Red Alachigh in so many ways, and in particular to fellow members of the Red Tent Council: Sue Charman, Ronnie Conboy, Vicki Killick and Joanna Swift.

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