Here and now

The problem with living in a downstairs flat is that there is no upstairs. This may sound obvious, but when you have lived in a house almost all your life, with an upstairs, you tend to forget. Many times I have grabbed my camera to head for the upstairs windows, only to realise that the couple who life up there might, possibly, object to me barging in unannounced every sunset and dawn.

My home is on a roughly east-west axis. Just sufficiently ‘off’ to mean that in summer, I can watch the sun rise from my pillow without needing to move. In winter I see the dawn through the garden doors that are, inevitably, already open for the dog.

Sunsets are a bit more problematic. The curve of the houses in my street and the rooftops opposite my kitchen window block most of my view. I get only the spreading colours as the light fades… which is where the upstairs would have come in handy. A little more height and I could see so much.

Yet, as I stood on the doorstep tonight, watching vivid pink and gold soften the sky, I realised how lucky I am to be able to watch the day begin and end, in glowing colours or beneath a pall of roiling clouds,  every single day. City dwellers seldom see much of the skyline and, when work takes me early into town, I miss the dawn as it hides behind the rooftops.

It may be natural to wish for things that are seen, but just out of reach or it may be the way we are conditioned by our society from the earliest age to aspire to ‘something more’. ‘The grass is always greener’ and all that…  But all that happens is that in looking beyond what is to what could be, we shift our focus away from the moment in which we stand and fail to appreciate what it offers. Not only that, but we create dissatisfaction for ourselves, a pressure for change for the sake of change and the stress of always chasing an illusive and elusive ‘something’ that we hope will be better than what we have. How often do we truly look at what we have in gratitude, not with some indefinable yearning?

Does it really matter that I see ‘only’ a sky suffused with colour and not the whole sunset? I could change that… a walk to the fields would give me an unobscured view, but it would take time and effort… a commitment and an active choice. Wishing alone will not get me from here to there… but I need do nothing at all to be here and now.

Every day is different, every dawn and dusk offers new wonders… and it does not matter at all where I am or where I stand. It matters only that I look up and see it as it happens.

Behind the times…

Louis XIV, by Bernini. Image: Louis le Grand

 

“Verily, verily, do I say unto thee,

Be wary of those who write your history.”

….so wrote Stuart a little while ago. Reading it, you might be forgiven for thinking of politicians, biased historians or religious bodies. I came across something even more insidious the other day, though… television. Not just any television either… this was a programme under the aegis of the BBC, once the most respected of institutions.

We all know…or I hope we all know… that Hollywood has always taken gross cinematic liberties with history, chopping, changing and reshaping it, just as they do with books, in order to produce something that gives a vague interpretation of events. This is Hollywood after all… Tinseltown… La La Land…the visual fantasy factory of the world. It rarely produces historical accuracy, that is not its brief. It produces entertainment and the definition of that mission is ‘to provide amusement or enjoyment’. Even the best and most accurate films deviate from reality… how could it be otherwise when a literary masterwork or a lifetime or two has to be squashed into ninety minutes?

The BBC, on the other hand, has built a long reputation as a source of educational and informative programming. It provides entertainment too, but we have acquired a habit of trusting it does its homework on its history.

Now, I do not have television. I have a television, but it is connected only to the player that was a gift from my son. I do not miss TV, but when I am unwell and cannot retire to bed because the dog still needs walking, feeding and access to the garden, I can happily relax with a film. I mention this to explain why I was ignorant of what I was about to see, for I had also acquired, by pressing one of those ‘find out more’ buttons, a free trial of an online viewing service. Scrolling through what was on offer, the title ‘Versailles‘ caught my eye. ‘Oh‘, thinks I, never having heard of the series and being, apparently, very much behind the times, ‘that might be good…

I lived in France for many years. I know a fair bit of French history, I know the palace of Versailles… the period and its people are fascinating for many reasons. I settled down to watch… and I was shocked.

It was not the inclusion of sex and violence, for they without a doubt reflect certain aspects of life at Louis’ court. Not that I think we need either representing quite so graphically on mainstream TV. I was more shocked by a reported statement from a producer that modern TV series’ should have a scene of sex or violence every fifteen minutes. Is this really what we require? Or it is that we have become so numb that we barely notice.

Pornography is widely available on the internet already. Gratuitous gore is so much a part of ‘entertainment’ these days that we barely flinch any more, and ever more shocking examples are placed before us to get our attention. That is a problem in itself and I wonder how close we now are to the scenario played out in the 1987 film ‘Running Man‘. The film portrays a totalitarian state where all artistic and cultural expression is  censored and the populace are controlled via the media feeding them increasing levels of sex and violence in ‘reality TV’ shows.

If that really is what we require, then we are a society in the final throes of decay… comparable to the Romans with their bloodthirsty arenas and ever more outlandishly staged contests designed solely to sate the appetite for blood and vicarious ‘thrills’.

What shocked me just as much was how far the producers of the film had rewritten history. It is one thing to set fictional characters against a backdrop of history… that is a staple of both fictional literature and film-making… but to twist facts to misrepresent historical figures, that is another matter altogether.

The series, I am told, runs through several seasons, presenting historical fiction mixed with historical fact as if it were one and the same. There seems to be no disclaimer that states it to be a fictional interpretation and viewers without prior knowledge will be learning ‘history’ from the script and assuming it to be true.

This worries me.

We can probably all discern that the sex and violence are only shown for shock value and the ratings. But how many could or would pick apart the fact from the fiction? We will just accept there is an element of dramatic licence, without questioning where it begins and ends, yet we still unconsciously absorb ‘facts’ that are fed to us via the imagination and in the safety of our own homes. That, I believe, affects how we view and trust things, the fact that we are within our own safe walls. Yet that is exactly where most media reach us.

There is little that can withstand a man who can conquer himself.
~Louis XIV

One of the tenets of the Silent Eye is to accept nothing and question everything. We encourage our Companions to take responsibility for their lives, thoughts and beliefs rather than simply accepting what they are told. In this age of bombardment by visual and aural information, I believe that developing a conscious attitude of discernment, the ability to exercise informed choice, and taking responsibility for those choices, is more important than ever.

We live in an age where both information and misinformation are as widely available as opinion. We have access to the thoughts, stories and histories of the world seen from many different perspectives. For the first time in human history, we have the ability to really think for ourselves in an informed manner, not follow blindly where our lords and masters may lead, either physically or intellectually. Do we not owe it to ourselves, and perhaps to those who have walked this earth before us, to choose a path of growth rather than the slippery slope to anaesthetised decay?

The future is ours to shape. Our future… personally and globally. Call me old-fashioned, but I would rather make an informed choice of the road I take than be led blindly by the nose… or a TV screen.

Naked earth

Looking at the map of prehistoric sites in Wales after our recent trip, where there are just so many to see, I wondered just how long it would take to visit them all. Derbyshire is the same. In fact, most of Britain is the same once you get outside the cities…

except the place where I live.  There is not a stone circle, dolmen or standing stone for miles. Granted, we have our fair share of historical landscapes and plenty of holy wells, but other than a handful of barrows and the odd hillfort, trackway and chalk carving of debatable age, there is not much to see of the prehistoric landscape.

What is found tends to be unearthed during the archaeological investigations made prior to building work… and subsequently re-interred where only future archaeologists will ever see it.

I was enormously excited to read of a massive prehistoric burial complex on the edge of Bicester, just fifteen miles from my home. Archaeologists investigated  134 trenches and found archaeological remains in 41 of them, including a Bronze Age axe head, an Iron Age settlement and hearth, plus later Roman and Saxon remains. If that wasn’t enough, the site was declared of national importance when the burials were found to be around 5,500 years old! The building developers had been slammed with an exclusion zone around the remains so that they would not be lost or damaged. The plans had to be altered… perfect. I was all ready to grab my camera and go!

Until I read further. The remains are now perfectly safe…and buried beneath a primary school playing field, with no trace of them showing above the surface…

It is undeniably frustrating. When our adventures were drawing such inspiration from the oldest churches, my area was the perfect environment for our forays. Very many ancient churches remain here, often no more than a mile or two apart. It has always been a relatively wealthy area and the churches have been well preserved. Wall paintings and carvings have survived, stained glass windows survive from medieval times… symbolism drips from the walls and we had a field day exploring their bounty.

It is not a tick-box affair, visiting these sites. When we visit a site we stay long enough to get a good feel for the place. It is almost always a first visit, not an only one. We tend to go back, sometimes very many times, and each time we look at the site with a different perspective born of an increasing familiarity and intimacy with its earth and stone. We had done the same with the churches, learning our way around them, little by little, missing much to begin with… until we learned what to look for. The same methods we use now in an older landscape.

On the odd occasion when we visit a place too far away to have any guarantee of being able to get back there once we have left the area, we take our time. Frequently, we return before we move on and, as at Bryn Celli Dhu last winter, the stones seem to respond, knowing the limitations of time and our desire to understand.

But what we learned edged us further and further back in time, into a more ancient landscape where the temples were roofed with stars. Following the trail, we were drawn into the ancestral past and began to learn how to work with the sites and stones of the old ones.

And I now live in an area where there are none.

I am working on that particular problem.

But, it occurred to me, driving home through the darkness with a full moon above, that before there were those sacred sites of worked stone and wood, we could go back even further, to a time when the sacrality of the earth itself led our ancestors both out onto the high places and deep into the caverns that are the womb of the earth. Only recently had Stuart and I felt the ‘invitation’ to go below ground seeking these sacred places.  I had even suggested, just a few days earlier, that we needed to visit the site of some of Britain’s only surviving cave art dating back thirteen thousand years.

I flicked on the laptop to watch videos of the incredible paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet caves. The creatures of Lascaux were painted over seventeen thousand years ago, deep underground. They include a bird-man, thought to be a shamanic figure, and quite obviously both the paintings and the making of them held some kind of ritual significance that can only be called sacredness. The Chauvet caves date back thirty three thousand years…and they are so beautiful that even the video made me weep.

They put our five- or six-thousand year old remains in perspective, just as they had done for the thousand year old churches.

In one of those moments of lucidity, when what you have always known, what you have even spoken of with others, becomes so crystal clear that you kick yourself for blind imbecility, I understood… finally… that mankind’s concept of sacredness goes back even further than Chauvet. Not just because to reach that level of sophistication in art, they would have had to have been learning their skills for generations… even before that.

The dates on the earliest art made by humans keeps being pushed back ever further and art in itself is an attempt to capture something magical.

Yet, before ever paint was made from ochre and charcoal, the first Venus figurine shaped from clay or the first etchings made on bone. Before anyone spoke what was in their hearts, one human being looked upon the land and felt its life to be sacred, even though there were not yet words for what he felt.

Whatever temples we have built since then, from the mounds of earth to the pyramids, from the forests of stones to the starry roofed churches, we have echoed the forms of that very first sacred place… the earth.

It matters not at all that there are no prehistoric marvels near my home. I was born in a sacred space and my body will never know any other. All I have to do is step out of my back door and I am standing in a place as old as time and older than Man.

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: The hidden valley

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?”

“No…”

“Cool!”

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.

 

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Stations of the sun

We were up and away early again, this time well supplied with munchables on which to break our fast. We may have missed the dawn, but we still caught the echoes of its gilding on the mountains. We wanted to take a look at a stone circle we had noticed at the end of the road, catching a meagre glimpse of the stones as we had driven back to the hotel Even from such a brief encounter, you could tell it was not a ‘real’ stone circle, but a modern reconstruction. However, in Wales, these are still a significant part of the culture.

This one, just outside Tremadog, was built for the National Eisteddfod when it visited the area in 1987. The Eisteddfod is a traditional festival: a celebration and competition of music and poetry. It is held under the auspices of the Archdruid and the Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain, the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain. ‘Gorsedd’ comes from the Welsh, meaning ‘throne’ and Eisteddfod comes from the Welsh words for ‘sit’ and ‘be’. Circles are often constructed as memorials of these important events and are completed a year in advance so that the Archdruid may proclaim the themes and details for the coming year.  The stones are still placed with ritual care. The Archdruid will stand upon the Logan Stone. To the east and facing him, will be the Stone of the Covenant, that station of the Herald Bard. Behind this are the Portal Stones and of these, the one to the right of the entrance to the circle is aligned with  the midsummer sunrise, while the stone to the left is aligned with the midwinter sunrise. Whilst they lack the powerful presence of the ancient circles, there is still something about these places that mark the stations of the year.

As for us, we had a more mundane station awaiting us. We were still way too early, though, and wandered back to Borth y Gest on a fruitless search for coffee before heading for Porthmadog. By this time, the mist had cleared on yet another splendid morning and we watched the swans in the harbour perform their morning ablutions as we waited.

One white vessel caught my eye for its name. Branwen was the sister of Brân the Blessed, he whose severed head had entertained and informed his companions for so long on the mound at Harlech, before being taken to the White Hill to protect the land. They were children of a marriage between the dark house of Llyr and the ‘Bran’ means ‘raven’ and ‘wen’ means ‘white’, ‘blessed’ or ‘fair’.  I have a personal interest in the name since ‘Wen Weston’ came into being as ‘Don’s‘ partner in The Initiate and the ancient tales have run alongside the adventures of Don and Wen.

It occurred to me that, as the raven and the swan are both traditional psychopomps, as Morgana had illustrated during the Feathered Seer weekend…and as we had unconsciously cast them for one of the rituals… then perhaps the ‘white raven’ refers to the swan. It would certainly fit with the tales of the brother and sister from the Mabinogion. I wondered about the significance of that in symbolic terms too, Brân and Branwen were children of a marriage between the Houses of Dôn and Llŷr, light and shadow. Dôn was the mother goddess, while Llŷr was associated with the sea…two states of being. Death, the realm of the psychopomp, could also be said to be the point where two states of being meet, like a wave upon the shore…

But it was not the time for such musings. We were meeting our companions to take the first of the mountain trains up to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The station in Porthmadog has been beautifully restored and the trains bring back many childhood memories.The views from the tracks are spectacular, by all accounts and the old slate-mining town sits within the heart of Snowdonia…

… except that, when everyone had arrived and the timetable had been checked, we found that we would either have too little or too much time to spend at the terminus. Fifteen minutes was never going to be enough and the alternative would have made everyone far too late for the long drive home. Alternatives were discussed, but the question was settled when one of our companions said that he would like to share a very special place with us. It was not far away and would be well worth the drive….

The drive alone was ‘worth it’… passing through some incredibly beautiful places as we headed towards Cwm Pennant, a hidden valley often cited as one of the most beautiful in Wales…

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Solstice stones

We had no idea where we would be taken for the final visit of the day. We suspected an ancient site as the area is just strewn with them. A brief glance at a map of prehistoric sites had left me wishing we were going to be in the region for at least the whole summer… you would need it to have any chance at all of seeing  surviving remnants of our ancestors. We were not disappointed. A short drive and a shorter walk and we found ourselves at the neolithic burial chambers of Dyffryn Ardudwy.

It is immediately impressive and unusual, though the brilliant sunlight reflecting on white stone and the deep shadows cast by a stand of oaks made it difficult, at first, to take in the full scope of what we were seeing. Small rocks cover an area around a hundred feet long by fifty feet wide. It is roughly trapezoidal in shape and, once again, reminiscent of the ceremonial stone axes that played such an important part in the culture of our ancestors.

Aerial image showing the shape of the enclosure, half hidden beneath the trees. Image: Google Earth

These axes, particularly those made in the most renowned ‘factories’ were traded across the country and even through Europe.  So many have been found unused, buried as grave goods or offerings, that they seem to have been much more than a mere practical tool. These ‘axe factories’ where the stone was quarried and crafted all seem to be in areas where the stone itself has special beauty of properties…and they are always in areas where major stone circles and monuments remain.

You have to wonder why. Was the stone itself prized for its qualities, or was it more to do with the location from whence it came? What did the shape represent, a mere stylising of a more practical form or did it hark back to early and symbolic representations of the womb of the goddess? That we will never know… but the shape itself crops up far too often at these sites to be ignored.

There are two burial chambers set within the field of stones. The smallest, set to the west and facing east, is the oldest. In fact, it is amongst the earliest of such tombs in the country, dating back possibly six thousand years. To put that in perspective, it was already ancient before the Great Pyramid was conceived.

There are many dolmens and traces of the ancient past around the village and a glance at the map shows some startling alignments across the landscape. The church of St Dwywe within the parish was built upon one ancient mound. A straight track from the church runs past the cairn of Cors-y-gedol to another cairn on Moelfre that aligns with the summer solstice. On the hills above Dyffryn Ardudwy, a line of standing stones tracks across the mountains. There can be no question of the importance of the area to our ancestors.

The smaller, older chamber is a classic shape, with tall pillars at the eastern entrance. They support a massive, sloped capstone and between them, a blocking stone still stands, closing the chamber. In front of the blocked entrance is a shallow ‘V’ shaped  ‘pit’. Excavations in the 1960s found no bones within the chamber, but fragments of deliberately broken shouldered urns and polished stone plaques were found in the pit.

When it was first constructed, the smaller chamber was enclosed within a round barrow. Almost all dolmens were so enclosed, the shape of the barrow changing over time. Most had a passage or forecourt that gave entrance to the tomb which was often used for multiple burials, with bones being added and removed over the years. It would seem that to our ancestors, their ancestors still had a part to play in the life of their communities.

The most curious feature of the western tomb, though, is the enigmatic carving that adorns the stones… stones that would have been buried and out of sight. Except, perhaps, to the dead. We have come across this too in many places and it suggests that these were not ‘just’ burial places, but houses of the dead, where the dead were seen to have a life after their own fashion.

The larger chamber also faces the east, but is in a slightly more battered state. Local stone has been used to shore up the slowly sighing uprights and though the stonework of the repair is obvious, it has been done with some sympathy.

In front of the entrance, you can still see the line of larger boulders and a single standing stone that would have formed part of the forecourt. When the second chamber was constructed, the covering mound grew to include and encompass the earlier round barrow. When you consider how much stone remains that has not been robbed over the centuries and how much more it would take to build a hill of that height and area, enough to cover both the chambers and the twenty five feet in between, you begin to get some idea of the scale of these constructions. To see the sunlight gleaming on white stone, even today, is a striking sight. Especially as it turns the white stones blue… echoing the sea and sky… and the blue light we found at the start of our adventures.

Light seems to play an important role at all these sites, even though many of them would never have seen the sun once construction was complete. Did our forefathers deliberately include the light within their houses of the dead? We know that they did;  famously at Newgrange and we have found evidence at other sites we have visited too. The play of light in the larger chamber, though, can only have been a fortuitous gift when it cast a hawk at my feet, flying into the east.

We explored…. not to our heart’s content, but as time allowed. Then, to honour the place and the solstice, we shared a simple ritual of light and darkness, passing, appropriately enough, through the brilliant sunshine and the velvet shadows cast by the trees. As we prepared to depart, something was nagging  from the stones and a persistent black and gold dragonfly convinced us to linger when the rest of our companions had left. The dragonfly seemed to approve…. and what better approval than that of a dragon could you have in Wales?

You always know when it is time to leave these sites. There is an indefinable shift in the feel of the place. Leave too soon and you may miss the gifts. Linger too long and you spoil the magic. You can only listen to the land and the moment… and wait to see what the next moment brings. And that means every minute is fraught with possibility.

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Beached

In joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.
Tolkien.

I know very little about seagulls. We do get them here where I live, far inland, raiding the landfills… but they seldom cry. There is something heart-aching about that sound that pulls at the soul with an indelible longing. And always, when I hear them, those lines from Tolkien wander through my mind. It is not a discontent with what is, but rather a yearning for the possibilities of what might be; a feeling very similar to that of childhood and the first sight of a summer sea. That too was carried on the cry of the gull. And we were heading for the beach…

The plan had been to take the train into Harlech and walk back, a couple of miles along the beach. The heat, however, was intense, so we settled on a more gentle perambulation, seeking out a quiet corner on the sands. It is our custom to invite our companions to share readings at these events. Some choose pieces that fit the theme of the weekend, others choose readings that speak to heart and mind. They always seem to fit the moment and the environment somehow, even when we have not given a detailed itinerary or when we have changed our plans to suit the day. This time, we had added the bibliomantic readings into the mix too and the randomly chosen quotations had a special relevance and nowhere more so than on the beach.

“Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now.” 
Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

We found a spot where someone had been balancing rocks. There were a number of these ephemeral sculptures around the place where we rested. It is not as easy as it looks to get even these fairly regular pebbles to retain their place. Michael Grab is an master of the art and his gravity-defying sculptures are something else entirely. He describes the meditative state of awareness that is both required and engendered by the stones as ‘finding a zero point or silence within yourself’ where awareness can be brought to understanding the form and the stone. It seemed the perfect place for the readings and subsequent discussions. It seemed, too, as if the readings were already answering those discussions, even before they arose.

As we sat on the sand, children ran along the beach, destroying most of the balanced art, except those pieces closest to us. It was a small sadness, knowing that the wind and tides would have taken them anyway. The children had no concept of what was involved in their creation. Their parents did not seek to stop them, and that brought the role of authority back into play. There is a place for it, when it teaches values, but how often are those values skewed or blinded, I wonder, by those authority itself has learned?

Those who gaze at you in joy will find your face joyfully reflected back at them.  
Nicolas of Cusa

Yet, it was as children that we waded out into the cool of the sea. Typically British and unprepared, shoes and socks were removed, trousers and skirts were tucked up…all that was missing was the proverbial knotted handkerchief. My one regret was the lack of swimwear… though I went out farther than was safe for my dignity, at least the sun was hot enough to dry the sodden skirt. Such moments, when the years fall away into unimportance are reminders of who we are behind the authority of our own outer personalities. The child remains within us and just as we would not confine a child in life, so should we offer the inner child its freedom.

The day was drawing to its close as we left the beach. Flowers as joyous as the sunshine lined the paths and birds, well-used to bounty seemed unflustered by our presence. There was, we were told, one more place to visit before heading back to Porthmadog for dinner. It was to prove, in its way, as stunning a site as any we have seen…

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Harlech

Leaving Portmeirion and its mysteries behind, we drove across the estuary to Harlech in search of lunch. Stuart and I had parked beneath the Norman castle that morning when we were in search of breakfast. The imposing bulk of the walls, towering high upon the castle mound, still makes a powerful statement today. I was glad we had seen it from beneath in the grey morning mist, with the remnants of its curtain wall enclosing the rock, as it allowed us to get a true impression of its scale and erstwhile might.

We had lunch in its shadow, looking back across the estuary to the mountains. Snowdon dominates the skyline here, almost everywhere you go, and I was torn between the desire to wander those hills and a need to get close to the sea. The hills make my heart sing…they always  do, no matter where they are. There is something about the high places that calls and always will. I can understand that; the hills were my first love, a place where I first learned the stories of the old ones from my grandfather and mother …and where I learned a sense of wonder that is with me still.

The sea is a different thing. I have always lived far from the shore yet the waves have always whispered in my veins. I suppose it comes of being island-born… although we tend to forget that our country is, after all, no more than a small island in a big world. The song of the waves touches something primal in most people.  Life arose in the oceans and so the waves sing of home. Although most of the ancient gods of the sea are male, they live within her ever-changing body and, like to like, she calls to us.

For the moment, though, we were poised between the hills and the sea, looking out at both and yet our attention was drawn, inevitably, by the vast stone presence of the castle. It was built by Edward I towards the end of the thirteenth century when he invaded Wales. There had been an impromptu Shakespearian theme running through the morning, though, and so, for me, it was the figure of Owain Glyndŵr, the last Welsh Prince of Wales, who caught my imagination. Glyndŵr had taken the castle in 1404 and it ecame his base thereafter. I had first come across him when reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV and, although I knew little about the man, the power of the name and character had stuck in memory and imagination. He could ‘summon spirits from the vasty deep’ and was described as ‘profited in strange concealments; valiant as a lion, and wondrous affable; and as bountiful as mines of India. ‘

There were those who were for knocking the castle down and restoring the hillside to its natural and more appropriate state as a holy place. It was here, so tells the Mabinogion,  that Bran the Blessed, high king of the Island of the Mighty, was petitioned for the hand of his sister, Branwen. When the marriage ended in tragedy, betrayal and war and Bran was mortally wounded, he instructed his companions to cut off his head and carry it home. It was here too that the severed head of the king entertained his court with stories for many years before being finally buried beneath the Tower of London on White Hill…. but that is another story.

Even though I was glad to have seen Glyndŵr’s castle, I had no real desire to walk its walls. To be honest, I would have struggled to climb its turrets… especially in the noon heat. I was fine on the flat, but slopes were still knocking me for six and the thought of the inevitable spiral staircase to the top of the tower was just too much. While most of our party explored the castle, a symbol of armed might and power, Stuart and I wandered off to the house of a Higher Authority… the parish church of St Tanwg.

St Tanwg is the patron saint and founder of the little church of Llandanwg, whose beach we would later visit. It is thought that the medieval church that remains there is built on the site of the original church dating back to the 5th or 6th century, when Tanwg, son of Ithel the Generous, came over from Armorica to assist King Vortigern in re-establishing Christianity in the area. There are several unusual carved stones in Llandanwg church dating back at least fifteen hundred years.

The church in Harlech, however, is not particularly old, nor does its architecture bear the marks of grandiosity. It sits on a hill at the centre of Harlech and was built in 1840 to replace the older church on the beach. It is a simple, peaceful building, cool in the heat of the day and with the colours of bare stone the only adornment on its walls.

It does, however, have some beautiful stained glass and a medieval font dating back to the 1400s. The font was probably once in use at Llandanwg church, but was found abandoned in the sand dunes before being moved to its current location. Around it are the toys and drawings of the children of the community, many of whom will have been baptised with the waters of the font, as their forefathers were.

In fact, the whole building has an air of being ‘lived in’ and used by the community. Plans for its modernisation are on show along with people’s comments and ideas. Evidence of meetings and events are everywhere. The nave of the church is very much alive with the life of the community it serves, while the sanctuary is set apart in simplicity, with an elegant cross bearing the risen and crowned Christ and the Four Holy Creatures marking the separation between the mundane and the sacred.

It is an odd and obvious contrast with the temporal power exhibited by the castle. The  display of secular power was designed to cow and coerce; there is strength and a violent authority built into the very fabric of its walls. Yet, just a few hundred years after it was built, it fell from use and into ruin when that power shifted, as it always does. The little church represents another authority, and while opinions of any organised religion may be polarised, there can be no denying that humankind has always sought a higher source of direction. The spiritual journey has taken many forms over the millennia, from the earliest stone circles and sacred groves, through the temples and great medieval cathedrals to the aspiration of the individual. No matter what shape it takes or Name it wears, the quest for Light remains at the heart of Man.

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Contrasts and small things

The heat was both welcome and unexpected. Britain in summer offers no guarantees, but on this, the Silent Eye’s third foray into Wales, we had once again been blessed with sunshine. Inevitably, at the earliest opportunity and armed with ice cream, we headed for the shade.

We had separated to go exploring and, as might be expected, Stuart and I had left the man-made landscape for the trees. We had spotted a small gazebo that promised superb views over the village and climbed the path into its relative comfort, feeling the contrast between light and shadow playing on our skin as we walked.

The landscape is not exactly natural. The old cove of Aber Iâ that is now known as Portmeirion, was once dominated by a Norman castle. Gerald of Wales mentions the newly built Castle of Deudraeth in 1188, and, although there is some debate about whether or not it was this castle, what is known is that the rocky outcrop does bear the remains fortifications and stonework dating back a thousand years. It was never a place of might, designed to withstand armies, but rather a symbolic demonstration in stone of lordly power. The castle was demolished in the 19th century and some of its stone was used in the building of Portmeirion. The main stretches of ancient wall that remain today are hidden within the rhododendrons, with only Clough Williams-Ellis’ fake battlements easily found. I rather like the idea that the old symbol of authority was used to create beauty and only a replica left behind.

A robin wandered over to see who we were and what possibilities we might offer, its wild heart free to choose its actions, within the limits of its nature. We relaxed, watching the world, until the silence was broken by the arrival of the land-train. For a few minutes, we saw the arm of authority exercise its power.  As the train stopped, its occupants descended and, on instruction, made for our gazebo. They dutifully admired the view, each ceding place to another, and taking a quick photograph. The whistle blew and they all returned to the land-train, to be taken to the next place they would be told to admire. It was a small thing, a matter of minutes, but served to highlight the unconscious alacrity with which we human beings accept that our actions may be dictated.

Rejoining our companions, we headed once more for the relative cool of the woods, stopping to investigate the miniature lighthouse that rises from the trees. It is a tiny thing, made of metal and seems to serve no other purpose than to be there, adding its contrast to the green. You have to wonder if it works… or was ever meant to do so. It poses some odd questions. A lighthouse should be a beacon, yet, if it does not  shine, if it is no more than an empty shell, is it still a vessel of light?

One of the wishing trees of Portmeirion was just around the next rise. There are a number of them; felled trees into which passers-by hammer coins with a stone. No-one seems to know why or when they began to appear. It reminded me of the old tree stump we had found outside a church, into which nails had been hammered, a relic harking back to an earlier time and belief. Once it was believed that witches could be kept at bay by hammering nails into trees. The coins, though, may be more of a votive offering. In folklore such gifts to the spirits of the trees and springs bring health or luck… and the removal of such coins reverses the gift.  The number of coins is astonishing, even in the one small stump. Almost automatically, the urge to do likewise arises, even when the conscious mind has no such desire. It is as if remnants of a herd mind still linger, just below the surface, waiting for evolution to take its hands off the wheel.

A second robin joined us as we contemplated a contorted tree, hopping close to my outstretched hands…probably to see if they held lunch. He watched from a safe distance as we broke out of conformity for a while. The tree was too good not to climb, but too high to reach the lowest bough without a little ingenuity and teamwork. That is the other side of the ‘herd mind’; perched in the tree, we had achieved the improbable by working together.

We began to climb, leaving the sun for the shadows beneath the trees. The oriental gardens would be a perfect place to stop and share our readings. Oriental they may be, but our first sight of the water would have inspired Monet.

It is a place of perfect contrasts. Deep shadows and bright sunlight, green wilderness and careful planting. What has been planted is allowed to grow wild… what grows wild is managed. Neither seems rigidly curtailed, yet neither are allowed to overwhelm the other. Dragonflies and damsel flies skitter across the water. Butterflies like scattered petals fill the air. Nowhere is Williams-Ellis’ vision of the melding of man and nature more perfectly expressed than in this small corner of the landscape.

It was here that we chose to sit and take our first reading of the day, a perfect complement to that of the previous night; an illustration of polarity in form and essence and the relationship between the sacred and the apparently profane.

Others also shared their readings, each adding to the moment their own particular light and shade. “…the sense of the sacred as something pervading the whole order of nature. Every hill, tree and river is holy…” In the green places, it is easy to remember, to look out and see the sacred in the world. The need is to see it in the small things of everyday life and within ourselves.

As we read, the third robin of the morning, even bolder than the others, came to take part in the proceedings, showing no fear at all, just curiosity and trust. Folklore has many tales to tell of the robin and it is seen as a symbol of divine service as well as a messenger of new growth and beginnings. The robin also brings another gift… he does not fight, but resolves his disputes with song. Our earth is full of teachers and the spiritual journey may be signposted by the smallest of them. The little bird came in trust and was welcomed with love…

… and laughter. Our redbreasted friend was hot. The sun was at its zenith, the day unbelievably hot…and our robin simply flopped in the dust, ruffled his feathers, opened his beak and did nothing for a while. It seemed like an excellent idea.

We made our way back to the entrance, leaving behind a place to which we will inevitably return and headed across the estuary to Harlech.