Tiny roads, miles from nowhere and barely wide enough for a car, wound between hills and hedgerows before finally opening out into the valley. And there, we became a traffic jam. The road was occupied by a horse that had evidently let itself out of its home and wandered down the lane to see the youngsters. Mare or stallion, it was impossible to tell from the last car, but the impression was that the king had come to see his subjects. When we arrived on the scene, all the foals were at the fence, nuzzling their visitor and prancing with excitement. It was, you could tell, a real ‘moment’ for them… and a lovely sight to see. It took me a while to even think of getting the camera as we watched and waited, not wishing to spook the horse.
“Before the gods that made the gods…” A few words of an old poem kept running through my mind… it was completely inappropriate. This was not a white horse, let alone the White Horse. It was Wales, not England…and King Alfred had never set foot here to my knowledge. On top of that, it was the solar symbolism of horses that long predated Alfred’s Christianity, that I was feeling as I watched the horse regally greet the foals. There was something majestic in his mien, and, with the emerald and blue of the mountains around him, there was no doubting his sovereignty.
“Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.
Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.
Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.”
“For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.
For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgement day.”
G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse
Passing glimpses of church towers and villages lost in the trees, significant stones and possible burial sites… we were kept well occupied until we arrived at a bridge over a crystal clear stream. The stream is the Afon Dwyfor which rises in the mountains that enclose the valley. Its name means ‘big holy river’ and, watching it sparkle in purity, you need no other explanation of its name. It is so clear that the depth is hard to gauge unless a small fish swims by and casts a shadow on the gravel, yet in places, it is easily deep enough for swimming… and had I been alone, there is nothing that would have kept me out of there.
Instead, we gathered beneath the trees of the riverbank for our final readings, before setting out into the morning heat to walk at least part of the valley. It is an incredibly beautiful place and we were grateful to our companion for sharing it with us, allowing us to get out into the mountains, albeit on an easy path.
We had the morning pretty much to ourselves apart from the birds and sheep. They are obviously used to walkers, so showed no more than mild curiosity and reasonable caution as we passed. The sheer scale of the valley is impossible to capture with a standard camera, but it is equally impossible to ignore as the hills tower around you. An American friend once spoke to us about Yosemite National Park, telling us how the landscape was too vast for the human mind to encompass. The British landscape, old and hoary as it is, is smaller… ‘human sized’ and intimate enough that we can feel the vastness as it lifts the heart and mind towards the infinite. Geologists call the ancient landmass that formed this part of Wales ‘Avalonia’. It is certainly a magical place.
We followed the sheep, passing the occasional cottage or farmhouse, past tumbling cascades and wildflowers, deep into the heart of the valley. The silence is complete. The sounds of nature that break the quiet serve only to bring the unheard silence into greater relief. And relief it is. We do not, I think, realise, how noise-assailed most of us are, most of the time and how much unconscious stress that causes.
But as we walked, mechanical sound found us once more with the whirring of a distant generator drowned by the baa-ing of a thousand sheep. It is shearing time and the flocks which normally roam the hills have been gathered into a closed field. Even though nothing worse than the shearing shed awaited them, their distress was palpable as they crowded together at the edges of the field.
We turned back at the shearing shed, although there was another corner ahead, another mountain, another vista… There always is. There was still a fair walk back to the river and the noon sun was sweltering. For all their panic, the removal of the dense wool must provide the sheep with a certain amount of satisfaction in summer.
The official Silent Eye weekend was over… though we all still had a long way to go to get home and there were still places we intended to visit along the way. Hot and sticky, the thought of the isolated, mountain-cold river drew me onwards. If everyone else was leaving… it was tempting. But by the time we arrived, several families had taken up position with radios and deck-chairs, we had arrived and were leaving at the perfect time. Bidding our friends farewell, we took a final look at the mountains.
“Do we know where we are?”
“We do not…”
“Do we know where we are going?”
With thanks to Steve and Barbara, and to our companions, for sharing a wonderful weekend.
This was the end of the official Silent Eye weekend, but not the end of our adventures or the places we were to visit, which I will continue to share on my personal blog.