It had been forty years since I last crossed the Menai Strait to the Isle of Anglesey and beyond, to the Holy Isle. I had fallen in love with the place back then and my memory has painted the island in the colours of summer, garlanded with wildflowers and encircled by a turquoise sea. But this time it is December… and memory always paints beauty in Technicolor. The mountains on the mainland are crowned with snow and recent temperatures have dropped to well below freezing. Probably not the best time of year to visit… or at least, not if I am to preserve that memory. The ‘new’ road crosses the island in a straight line, restricting the view. It is not until we leave it that I have my first real look at the place I remember with such fondness.
The island, beneath the pale winter sun, still wears the colours of summer. The day is mild, bathed in a light as warm as a spring morning. Wildflowers bloom in incredible profusion in every nook and cranny. Although the hedgerows now bear only berries and not the wreaths of honeysuckle that I remember, everything is vivid and green… except for the turquoise of the sea and the pale line of the snowy mountains that seem to float above the mist across the water. It is incredible…and even more beautiful than memory.
Arriving early, we had time for a bit of a wander before meeting the others at the hotel. We drove out towards South Stack where we would be starting the day’s adventures next morning. We didn’t quite go all the way…just far enough to catch a glimpse of the lighthouse and take a walk along the cliffs. Somewhere there is a photograph of a very much younger me, walking that same path in what feels like another life. So much has happened since that first visit… I am not the person I once was and, although I no longer have her youth, she never had my joy.
I could not help but look back, casting a glance at the maelstrom of events that has churned my life since my last visit. From happiness and adventure,to love, loss and tragedy…it is no different from any other life, except to me. I have lived inside the aura of each event, both my reactions and my actions have shaped the girl who once walked here and, through that process I have become the woman I am. A process that continues with each passing moment. The times of wonder have held as many thorns as the times of sorrow… and yet, like the midwinter gold of the gorse, it is from that dark foundation that joy has been able to bloom.
It seemed a fitting reflection for the islands that once saw the end of an era when the Druids were slaughtered by the invading Roman forces. Little is known of the early Druids, except through the writings of the Romans, Greeks and a few others. There is no written record from the Druids themselves who knowledge was passed from mouth to ear. Julius Caesar himself, who leaves the earliest account, recounts that it took twenty years to train a Druid, including the committing to memory of all their unwritten lore. Conflicting tales are told of their rites, including tales of ritual sacrifice. These may be factual, travellers stories or, quite possibly Roman propaganda to justify the extermination of an influential elite. It is told that they were the doctors and poets, the learned and the law-speakers, as well as spiritual leaders and, alongside the nobles, were the most influential people in their lands. There is evidence that they believed in the survival of the soul and in reincarnation…which might well have a bearing on the interpretation of sacrifice. Their very name, Druid, in the old tongues means seer, magician and, curiously, wren. Even older roots trace their name back to ‘oak-seers’. Yet, in AD60, this learned body gathered on the Isle of Anglesey, Ynys Môn, and awaited the forces of Suetonius Paulinus.
“On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors,” wrote Tacitus, “while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds.” Still, they could not withstand the onslaught of the Roman army and would have been utterly obliterated had not Paulinus been called away to deal with the uprising led by Boudicca, queen of the Iceni. It fell to Agricola in AD 77 to finish the campaign. There is evidence, however, of Druids officiating at ceremonies long afterwards, but their power and influence as a body was broken. It is always at the heart that the deadliest blows are aimed.
Legends tell another story, of how the time had come for one era to end and another to begin and how it is in the very darkest of times that the first glimmers of light can be seen. The stories tell that Joseph of Arimathea brought a newborn faith to these shores and how the Druids, recognising that it was time for their own light to fade and a new light to rise, sank into the mists beneath the sword. Close to the midwinter solstice and at a time when the world seems to be facing its own darkness, the story, whether truth or symbol takes on a deeper meaning, reminding us of the natural cycle of life and the darkness in which all light comes to birth.
There was another reminder too as we all walked around the bay that night. Darkness, for all we may fear it, has its purpose. The winter night closed in black and clear. Above, the stars shone with a brilliancy not seen on the mainland with its light pollution, not noticed by those whose eyes see no further than the doom and gloom brought into our homes through a flickering box. The darkness brought the stars to life and their colours shone for us in the heavens… and the lights of man echoed their dance on the darkened waves, making the little bay into a place of magical beauty.