Stepping into the Dark with Becky Burchell

by Steph Matthews
13th February 2024

Becky Burchell with Drums


Steph Matthews interviews Becky Burchell, Creator and Storyteller of event series Women of the Dark Skies.

As a new generation of arts and culture organisations takes up the challenge of reinvigorating the nation’s rich cultural heritage, Steph Matthews speaks to creative producer Becky Burchell about creating ‘Women of the Dark Skies’ – a night-time storytelling pilgrimage for women exploring the ancient land and history of Cranborne Chase, North Dorset.

It was October 2023. At nightfall, women from all over the county gathered in darkness by the village hall in Chettle, near Blandford Forum. Mobiles off, torches extinguished, and with no small amount of trepidation, our group – strangers to each other – were about to take part in a 3-hour immersive outdoor theatre experience like no other.

‘Women of the Dark Skies’ was the brainchild of Chettle resident Becky Burchell. As a creative producer and activist, Becky has created festivals, plays, films, community gatherings and women’s circles. Yet this was the first time she has both written and performed a story. The event was co-created in association with local experts and members of the Chettle community, it ran for three months and captured the imaginations of more than 100 people.

For the women who came, the event was a special opportunity to be transported 2,000 years back in time to Iron Age Dorset and follow the footsteps of our ancestors. Led by “The Story Weaver” (the role Becky inhabited), we embarked on a 4-mile night-time walk to discover the story of young Durotriges tribeswoman Arla the Hare Runner on the eve of her coming-of-age ceremony. A reverent silence was held between each storytelling stop along the way. We didn’t just hear the tale; we inhabited it. The linocut image on the event’s flyer captured the intensity – a woman standing in her full power, spear in hand, gaze fixed on the huge moon casting its light and shadows on the landscape at her feet. That night, we became her.

Becky’s creation was an unforgettable, mind-altering experience – senses heightened by the blackness of the woods, unease that gave way to fascination, and the palpable sense of kinship with the land and each other as we came together to share what was alive in us around the fire of the women’s circle at the very end.

As a resident of Chettle myself, it was thrilling to see all of this unfold in our little corner of the world, but what struck me most was the profound impact this experience had on people. A parliament of owls, stags, glow worms and many other natural wonders accompanied our walk, adding to the otherworldly atmosphere. While the event gave us pause to gaze in awe at the star-filled skies of Cranborne Chase; it was also an opportunity to feel what is timeless, and ancient in all of us, and find a new relationship with the land we call home.

Steph: Take us back to the beginning, what inspired you to do these events in the first place?
Becky: During lockdown, I fell in love with walking at night, especially during the cold winter months. I would walk the ancient Chettle paths, deepening my relationship with the land, savouring the freedom as an antidote to the uncertainty of COVID. I began wondering more and more about those who lived in this valley before us and how they would have related to the darkness and the night sky. I was inspired to create an event for women that would invite them to reconnect with the land in the darkness, a forgotten world that still lies here on our doorsteps, waiting to be rediscovered.

Steph: How did you approach the development of this experience?
Becky: I plotted the pilgrimage route and I walked these footpaths many times, both in the daytime and at night, stopping to spend time at the Chettle Longbarrow. I wanted the pilgrimage and story to immerse the participants in the ecology, the stars and the ancient history of this magical place. So I invited local archaeologist Martin Green, Cranborne Chase AONB Dark Skies Advisor Steve Tonkin and Chettle’s ecologist Pete Etheridge to walk the pilgrimage route with me. Each expert gave me a different lens through which to experience the landscape and the night sky and I wove this inspiration into the story.

Steph: Where did the story itself come from?
Becky: People have lived in the Chettle landscape for nearly 6,000 years, so I have written a story that transports participants back in time. I chose the late Iron Age as the moment to set the narrative in, nearly 2,000 years ago, just after the Romans invasion and as Boudica was uniting the tribes for the uprising. This was a pivotal moment in British history, as the colonisation of this island’s tribespeople and their land brought with it significant cultural shifts that we are still living with today. I imagined what it would be like to live as a woman or girl during these times, as part of the Durotriges tribe (the tribe that lived over what is now Dorset). How would it feel to have their land and homesteads invaded, to have lost loved ones to battles against the Romans, to be dictated to by a patriarchal and powerful foreign power? Would these women be tempted to go and join Boudica in the rebellion against Rome? The story centres around Arla the Hare Runner, a young woman who discovered her unique strength and power to stand up to these aggressive invaders. The story is also crafted to invoke parallels to our current societal challenges, inviting participants to reflect on their own agency to act and create change.

Steph: Tell us about the experience of walking in the dark.
Becky: Many women, understandably, have a fear of walking at night, so I created an opportunity for women to feel safe and enjoy the experience, even though this was pushing some people out of their comfort zones. To do this, I had to push myself out of my comfort zone, spending a lot of time in the woods at night on my own, working out how to lead others with care. My night vision isn’t actually very good! But I got to know the paths well, so I could eventually lead with confidence.

The pilgrimage takes place mostly without torches and in silence, as this heightens our hearing and sense of smell and touch. In this way, we are fully focused on ourselves and our surroundings, rather than distracted by chatting. As we walk, each participant follows behind me in a long snaking line, with a volunteer at the back, and this means that I can keep people on track – literally! We walk very slowly through the woodland, and use red torches here when there is no moon. I also give everyone a hazel walking stick, as extra support for the more bumpy or muddy sections of path.

Steph: How did you encourage participation?
Becky: This event was designed especially for women, to encompass a number of different elements, including storytelling, nightwalking, local and national history, ecology, spirituality and astrology. The experience ends in a Women’s Circle around a fire in a secluded woodland, where the participants are invited to speak and to listen to each other. So people were drawn to the event for a wide variety of reasons, meaning we had a very diverse range of participants from a wide area, some coming from over an hour away to take part.

Steph: Who else was involved in the development of the event?
Becky: I couldn’t have created Women of the Dark Skies without the help of the members of the Chettle Women’s Circle, a group of friends who I host once a month at my house to support one another and share stories and wisdom. These women spent many nights with me testing the pilgrimage as it developed and they also volunteer as stewards and fire keepers at each event.

I also called on the expertise of director Sophie Austin, folk artist Sam Lee, outdoor arts practitioner Lorna Rees and storyteller Lizzie Bryant, who all had invaluable input for both the storytelling and the pilgrimage. Manda Scott’s ‘Boudica’ books offered insights into the cultural shifts that the Roman invasion initiated and I included proto-Celtic words in the story, such as ‘Karesta’ (kinswomen) which I took from Carolyn Hillyer’s book and dictionary ‘Her Bone Bundle’.

Steph: What was the first night like?
Becky: I have created many arts experiences during my career, from festivals to films to plays, but this was the first time I have taken the role of Storyteller. The story I wrote is over 5,000 words, so the first night I was nervous about forgetting the words, as well as ensuring everyone felt safe as we walked. During the day, the rain was relentless and as we gathered for the start of the pilgrimage under the light of a fire torch, it was still lightly drizzling and I was worried about people getting cold and wet. Then the clouds eventually cleared about halfway through, revealing the most magnificent starry night and it felt like the ancestors were walking with us. The feedback at the end was hugely positive, surprising and humbling. It was clear that this would be an experience that would touch people deeply.

Steph: What were the highlights from pilgrimages?
Becky: Whenever you bring people to an arts experience within a natural environment, there are always going to be surprises and cameos from the more-than-human world! On one of the nights, we were treated to a meteor exploding like a silent firework in the sky, lighting up the ground below and evoking gasps from all of us. A few moments later, we were greeted by the enthusiastic grunts of a stag, who was probably less than 20m away from us. I broke the silence at that point and called confidently back to him! Once he had moved on, we looked to the horizon to see the moon rising from behind Pentridge Hill. It looked like the peak of an orange volcano pushing up from the dark landscape.

Incredibly, on most of the events, we also saw glow worms on the edge of the path as we walked through Little Woods, even though it was late October and outside of the typical breeding season, these little beings were still shining in the dark. Moments like this remind us that the more time we spend outside at night, the more we see. We are so used to being cocooned up in our warm houses, we are missing many of the wonders of the night that would have been familiar to our ancestors.

Steph: What was the response from those who attended?
Becky: Here are some of the responses from the women who experienced the Women of the Dark Skies…
“I had an incredible time on this journey into history; I felt empowered and transported back in time.”
“Becky’s masterful storytelling connected past, present and future so cleverly, yet she also created space for self-reflection and discovery. What people shared around the fire circle at the end demonstrated the depth and impact of this experience.”
“A wonderful experience on so many levels. I felt really immersed in the story, in nature and in the landscape. A fantastic experience walking without artificial light and in silence – it gave an opportunity for us to appreciate our other senses and to trust that we can walk without being able to see the ground.”
“It was an incredibly meaningful and magical experience. It felt very well planned and it was clear that a lot of thought and energy had gone into creating it. What a wonderful gift to give local women!”
“The whole experience was beautiful, finely crafted and impactful.”

Steph: What’s happens next for this event?
Becky: I am planning to do four more dates in March 2024, so there’s still a chance for people to take part in this experience. I have been asked if I will update the story or even adapt it for print, but I’m still exploring both these options, so who knows whether a further iteration of the story will emerge! In the meantime, you might find me under the full moon by the Long Barrow…

Tickets for Women of the Dark Skies events in March can be booked here:


Image credit: Jayne Jackson