A game of three halves (3 of 3)

 

Continued from Part Two

So, this one day, considered in all its facets, resolves itself into a journey, a destination and an arrival – an arrival at a meeting with a French relative we have never met, and whose unlikely presence, here in the north-west corner of Wales, completes a cycle of mystery and loss lasting ninety-three years…

As we journey along the spine of Anglesey, to meet her by the Red Tower in the university town of Bangor, Juliette is waiting, over a coffee, in a place where she will be able to see us walking up the main street.

The car journey, fortified by all the strange connections, becomes an arrow; an arrow that completes…

The island of Middle Mouse seen from the cliffs above St Patrick’s church

On the road across the island, we talk of the wonderful good luck of finding the local guide cum historian in the church of St Patrick at Llanbadrig Head; of his smile when he had told us that, usually, he attends on only two afternoons a week, but this morning, he felt he should be there… Wonderful story teller that he is, he had walked us to the cliff edge to see the island of Middle Mouse,  to point at the dark rock and bring to life St Patrick’s escape from the storm that wrecked his ship. He had told us of the deadly cliffs, below, and that we were standing right over the cave that gave sanctuary to the swimmer on the dawn as Patrick escaped from his isolated rock and made the relative safety of the shore, with its protective cave with the freshwater spring.

And then how he had taken us back into the church, the remarkable church rebuilt by Lord Stanley, the man who had fallen in love with an Islamic lady and been so ‘opened’ to the love in his soul that he had converted to Islam and devoted his time to ‘good works’, including the reconstruction of the remarkable St Patrick’s Church.

On hearing that, a shiver ran up my spine. What, I had asked myself, as our guided tour unfolded, did any of the history of St Patrick’s Church have to do with the fact that, on this day, we were due to close the gap between two parts of a family lost to each other for nearly a hundred years? Suddenly, in the guise of Lord Stanley – Adbul Rahman as he became, in his new spiritual tradition, there was a symbol of a man who loved a woman so deeply that he gave up his ‘home’ – physical or spiritual, for her.

Stephen, my great-uncle and Adrienne, his wife

My grandmother’s eldest brother, Stephen, had done that, too. He came through the war unscathed, and, while still in France, married Adrienne, the woman he loved. Then he brought her back to England and the northern working-class town of Bolton, where their first child, Madeleine, was born. We do not know what happened after that; only that the three of them returned to France within two years. Stephen, later known in the family as ‘The Englishman’, went to work in the family’s bakery business and, subsequently, ran a successful Tabac near Calais.

Elizabeth, my paternal grandmother, never saw him, again… Was there bad feeling, that the Bolton family had lost their eldest son to a French girl? Maria, Stephen’s mother, was said to be a strong personality, even refusing to have her photograph taken because it might ‘steal her soul’. Perhaps she and Adrienne, Stephen’s new wife, fought. More likely is that her lack of spoken English may have created great hardship and homesickness for her – especially with a young child. My aunt Mary, Stephen’s niece and still alive in her nineties, remembers Adrienne ‘being very quiet; she just sat there and said nothing…’

Adrienne in the family Tabac and coffee shop

Whatever the reason, on returning to Calais, the family links seem to have fallen away… and were lost, eventually, to the knowledge of their English cousins and their children. They stayed that way for nearly a hundred years.

As a teenager, I remember my grandmother telling me the story of her eldest brother, and crying at the sadness of never having seen him again after his return to France. Other than the ancestral records and the fact that I, too, am called Stephen, I have little presence in her, or great uncle’s Stephen’s story… but the memory of her tears is very real and painful, and gives me a point of historical reality that suddenly becomes very raw, like a wound that needs healing.

Perhaps this is why we are here… on this day; to make good that gap in love. And, as Stuart would say, names are important; and mine is Stephen.

Stephen and Adrienne’s four children. The boy is Etienne – French for Stephen

In the car, we review what we know: Stephen and Adrienne had four children. Etienne (Stephen in French) was their third, and is still alive, though in his nineties. His wife is Mado (Madeleine) who began her earnest search for their long-lost English family over a decade ago. It was Mado’s message that Bernie, my wife, found on the Ancestry website while she was conducting a parallel search.

One of their children is Christophe, who is a Green politician in Calais. His daughter is Juliette, the Erasmus Language Scholar, studying at Bangor University, who waits for us in Bangor, near the red tower.

We arrive with five minutes to spare. We walk from the car park in near silence. The events of the morning have been overwhelming on so many levels. I feel as though a great weight rests on our shoulders as we complete the physical act of climbing the hill to the Red Tower. I speak a little French, though it is rusty. Perhaps I need not worry; she is a languages scholar, after all…

Juliette has finished her coffee. She sits on a bench by the Red Tower, rising to her feet and smiling, as we approach…

 

‘We found him, Grandma, and this woman is his great-granddaughter…’

Epilogue

I could have written: ‘we discovered that a long-lost branch of the family was alive and well in France. A younger member of that family is studying in Bangor, Wales. We happened to be on a short break, nearby, that weekend, so we arranged to meet up with her.’

But where would the fun have been in that? Moreover, where would the truth have been in that?

Any spiritual path, including that of the Silent Eye, requires that we examine the whole of our life, in detail, as it happens. We observe and let unfold; we do not judge – we simply let happen so that it may reveal its real nature.

This has been the story of that day’s unfolding. Everything in the three parts of this story is the truth, told as it happened.

Juliette and her grandmother, Mado – the originator of the French side of the search

Other parts of this series of posts

Part One; Part Two

…………..

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via low-cost, supervised correspondence courses. His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com

©️Stephen Tanham

 

 

A game of three halves (2)

 

It is, still, all of it, only one day…

Though now the winds that buffeted the bed-and-breakfast farmhouse have abated. I look at my watch. We have two hours to go before we need to leave to drive across Anglesey to meet a young woman named Juliette, who holds the key to this entire story. She will be waiting, at noon, by the red tower in the centre of Bangor – the nearest town on the other side of the beautiful but deadly Menai Straits.

We have time, we decide. Time to visit the isolated and mysterious St Patrick’s Church on the rugged cliffs to the east of Cemaes Bay. Prior to this trip, we hadn’t heard of it. Now, after hearing local accounts of its history, we can’t wait to visit…

After a couple of false starts, we correctly interpret the hand-drawn map, donated at breakfast, and make our way from the main Holyhead road along the mile of narrow and twisting country lane to find the archway to the church ahead of us.

Not far away, but long ago, he is standing a little way ahead; looking down at the crashing waves and bringing his gaze from the dark rock of Middle Mouse island towards the cliffs beneath his feet.

It is 1864 and he has used his wealth to fund the restoration of the little church behind him.

He gazes down at the waves… How long had Bishop Patrick clung to the inhospitable granite of the tiny island of Middle Mouse, as the wreckage of his ship washed past him? Did he wait till first light, before tying what was left of his heavy and saturated woollen robe across his back and entering the sea, again, to swim the half kilometer to the cave he could now see; a cave that would offer a fresh-water spring and let him tend his wounds, a cave that would become his home until the miracle of his survival became known to the local people, who would build him a church on the headland – the first Christian church in these parts.

Badrig – St Patrick

Adbul Rahman looks down one last time at the savagery of the waves breaking below. He shakes his head at what early religious pioneers of all faiths had to go through. His own sacrifice is small by comparison; and carried out under the cloak of wealth. But, in his own way, he has sought out worthy causes, to show that his heart is still within Britain, though his faith has changed. Now a devout muslim, and the first such in the British House of Lords, Adbul Rahman, formerly Henry Edward John Stanley, Third Baron of Alderley, has just overseen the full restoration of St Patrick’s first church in Wales.

The feeling is a good one. He, Adbul Rahman, has made a contribution to the sincere worship of God, paying respect, as is the custom in his new faith of Islam, to those of other faiths. The completion of the church at Llanbadrig has been timely; his sister has just given birth. The infant’s name is Bertrand Russell. It sounds like a good name -a portent, perhaps of the child’s future…

Entering the tiny church, he is greeted by the ancient cross, the one bearing the two-overlapped fishes – said to be the original Christian cross design. Beneath the cross is a crude carving, chiseled, with patience and dedication, on the ancient granite pillar whose origin or possible previous use is unknown. It is a palm tree. No one knows what it means, or why it is juxtaposed with the crossed fishes…

On the far eastern wall, behind the simple, but beautiful altar, the wall tiles are of an Islamic pattern, though fired in England. It has been his one overt imposition on the design of the restored site, though several more are hidden – for those who have knowledge of eastern symbolism – in the design of the church.

It is 1919. Stephen Duffy fingers the document in his pocket for the umpteenth time, realising that his constant fretting with it is wearing the paper away. He pulls his fingers from his jacket’s inside pocket, glancing, nervously across at his youngest sister, Elizabeth, who knows him so well that she has spotted his fretful behaviour. From the look in her eyes, she senses that something dreadful is going to happen, despite the smiles of her beloved brother and his new French wife.

Stephen Duffy and his French wife, Adrienne

A soldier in the Royal Engineers, he has come through the first World War unharmed – a miracle in itself. But his wife, Adrienne, cannot settle in the working class darkness of post-war Bolton, and needs to return to her home town of Calais, where her relatives have created a new job in the family’s bakery business. Stephen is a baker by trade and will be very welcome in the family’s boulangerie, The couple’s newborn first child, Madeleine is assured of a warm, family welcome. Three more children will follow, including Etienne, Juliette’s grandfather. Etienne is French for Stephen.

Stephen Duffy, of Bolton, Lancashire, and his wife Adrienne are leaving for France. The document in the breast pocket is the ticket for the ferry. Elizabeth Duffy, my paternal grandmother, looks at him across the table where Sunday lunch has been, and senses, correctly, that despite his surviving the horrors of the war, she will never see her elder brother, again.

Juliette Duffy is twenty years old. She is combing her hair and looking at her reflection in the small room’s mirror. She knows she looks like her devoted grandmother Mado. Mado – the preferred short-form from her given name of Madelaine – has been a detailed researcher of the family tree – particularly the lost English connection, for decades. Juliette knows that there is a mystery back there, back then, as to why the two families lost contact… but fate has cast her, an Erasmus Scholar of languages, studying at Bangor University, in an unlikely role.

Seven years ago, Mado placed a request on the Ancestry website asking for help from anyone who could help reunite the two sides of the family by giving details of its lost English connection. Two weeks ago, that notice was finally seen by a woman in England who knew of the Duffys; indeed had married the grandson of one…

Juliette puts on her coat and leaves the student block. She will be early. She will have a coffee and think what she might say to these two middle-aged relatives on behalf of her grandmother, who is frantic with anticipation across the channel in Calais…

(Continued in Part Three)

Other parts in this series:

Part One;

(Continued in Part Three)

………….

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via low-cost, supervised correspondence courses. His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com

©️Stephen Tanham

 

Of Ash and Seed – Pawns to castle…

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As we hurried through the castle grounds in Beaumaris, a lone seagull was dancing. He seems to be marching on the spot, marking a rhythmic time with his feet. Worm-charming, said my companion. I didn’t even stop to take a picture. We were late.

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With fond farewells, just in case, we had taken a temporary leave of our companions in the car park of Bryn Celli Ddu. They would go on to Penmon Priory with its tenth century stone crosses and wonderful views before heading to Beaumaris. We, however, were heading back across the island to the hotel to collect the forgotten bag. With luck, we would meet again in time for lunch.

Aerial view Beaumaris Castle (CD34) Anglesey North Castles Historic Sites
Aerial view Beaumaris Castle (CD34) Image: CADW

It was a shame, but could not be helped.  Off we went, sailing down the roads to retrieve the bag. By the time our mission was accomplished, we knew it was too late to head for Penmon… and too early for Beaumaris. And we had said we would have to go back to Bryn Celli Ddu…the road back there was also the only route we really knew. It was almost as if we had no choice… just pawns in the hand of the gods… but that is a whole other story, outside the scope of the Silent Eye weekend.

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Traffic delayed us on the road between Bryn Celli Ddu and Beaumaris and we were beginning to wonder if we would make lunch at all. We headed for the car-park Steve had recommended, feeling like guilty children… and parked between our companions’ cars. Even if we could not find them in the town and missed them completely, they would at least know we had tried to join them. But, as luck would have it, we bumped into them almost immediately. Sadly, they had already eaten and were about to leave. Even so, it gave us a chance for hugs and decent farewells. It had been a spectacular weekend, with amazing sites and wonderful weather, so we were glad of the chance to thank Steve and Barbara again for what they had organised.

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And suddenly, there was no rush. We were never going to make it home before dark, so we had what was left of the fading afternoon light to enjoy. I had not seen Beaumaris for the past forty years, but I remembered it well and had walked the castle ramparts, looking down to a moat that seemed alive with eels. Then, it had been high summer and the streets had been crowded with tourists. Now it was winter and the streets were almost empty, a perfect time to get a few decent shots of the castle.

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Beaumaris Castle is a concentric design castle and at one point the town itself sheltered behind walls that were connected to the castle. The curtain wall of the outer ward is moated and was once accessible by sea, making supplying the castle a simple matter. Within that is the inner ward designed to hold domestic buildings. It completely overlooks the outer ward all round, which must have made defensive sense. It was built as part of Edward I’s campaign to conquer North Wales in the 13thC. Building commenced in 1295, and by 1330, it has already cost £15,000 an astronomical sum in those days…and it was still not complete. This seems odd when today it is one of the best surviving examples of its kind in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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It was time to leave Anglesey though. The late afternoon light was becoming thin and misty as we headed back to the car. Our worm=charming friend was still doing his worm-dance, and this time the camera was in my hand. The mountains of Snowdonia beckoned, their foothills green and russet, their peaks crowned with snow…and the passes that run between them better driven in at least a modicum of daylight. Reluctantly, we turned the car towards the Menai Bridge and the mainland for the long drive home, with a final gift awaiting as we passed the distant beauty of Snowdon and Tryfan. It had been a wonderful weekend.

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Moon over Venus – part three

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Two people stand just ahead of the main group at the edge of a Llyn Carrig Bach, the sacred Druid lake which now lies just off the end of the runway at RAF Valley, on Anglesey. Being the weekend, RAF Gnats – the UK’s primary jet training aircraft, made famous by the Red Arrows aerobatic team – are silent.

The two gaze into the setting sun, drinking in the vivid colours of twilight, and give unspoken thanks to the modern forces of happenstance that this most special day could have ended with such a magical event in the early night’s sky.

The last stage of their path, here, with their companions of the weekend, was from the RSPB car park situated at the end of the main road through the small town of Valley. As they walked the sun set, and the final stages of the short climb to the plateau were carried out in the day’s fading light.

This juxtaposition, here, of ancient and modern has its military overtones, too, – which are not lost on the group. The Silent Eye teaches that in the moment, the now, there is continuous magic. This magic conspires to bring to us the ‘bigger’ picture – the work of the spiritual – in what is usually viewed as the ordinary or the accidental. We see what expect to see. When we widen that expectation – in the final analysis, letting go of any ‘us-generated’ expectation – we begin to see a very different world.

In this place, right over the marshy lakes which marked the end of our first day, some of the world’s most advanced small jets hurl themselves into the air with unbelievable speed.

Unbelievable…. a word that might also describe how those we were gathered to honour – our Druid ancestors – felt, in A.D. 60, knowing that the greatest military machine in the world was a few miles away, waiting for the right time to cross the Menai Straits from the mainland and end the Druid’s magical existence…

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Core images: St Fagan’s National History Museum

 

Disbelief, perhaps, would be a better word. One theory is that disbelief was so strong that the Druid chiefs assembled here (already a longstanding sacred site) to cast into the waters a large sacrifice of their most precious objects – damaged by themselves so that they were beyond their own use. We have forgotten this form of sacrifice, yet we embed such principles into various logical instruments such as financial trusts.

Swords, shields, slave chains and even a cauldron, all were thrown into the waters of Llyn Carrig Bach only a short distance from where we had gathered in the fading light. What became known as the ‘Anglesey Hoard’ was rediscovered when the airfield was under construction in the 1940s and is now housed in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

Now, on the hilltop overlooking the ancient lake – now largely silted up and with a shoreline protected by sharp gorse bushes – the two light candle flames and gathered their spiritual kin to begin the simple rite…

A day such this can be focussed on either its beginning or its ending. At the summer weekends, we focus on the dawn, symbolising the rising power of life – a universal, magical event, that we all take for granted.

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For the winter solstice, we view the sunset as the event around which gather; and the whole of the Saturday on Anglesey was constructed to support that…

We had begun with the vast history of life and pre-life on Earth, beautifully illustrated in the twin climbs (down and up) of the cliffs at South Stack.

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Back at the top, after the struggle of the ascent – representing the long climb of evolution – we visited a wonderful ancient village that has such a special feel that it could still be inhabited by the happy ancestors who lived and thrived there…

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From there, we travelled in our car convoy to a strange dolmen located in the middle of a large and very muddy field.

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Both Barbara (in the stone) and I had been moved by the folk-tale of a family who, in relatively recent times, had made a home beneath this ancient structure in their times of dire need. The contrast with the ‘happy’feel of the Holyhead Mountain group could not have been stronger and emphasised how mankind’s structures have played a pivotal role in the ascent of the species.

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Our brief (soup) lunch had been at Rhosneigr, where, after our simple meal, the beach provided a contemplative place to each select a pebble to be used as a sacrificial token during the sunset ceremony at Llyn Carrig Bach. Each person was asked to imbue the stone with something that had served them well, but which they had outgrown.

Our penultimate destination, with the sun setting fast into the ocean, is one of the most beautifully situated burial chambers in Britain – Barclodiad y Gawres. Located on a clifftop near Aberffraw, this site has been reconstructed with a roof of concrete, newly covered in soil and grass, and is most strongly associated with the Druids, as this picture site guide shows. The facial decorations were mirrored in the headland stones.

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Here, we had a place of ritual splendour which, sadly, is now locked behind steel shutters to prevent vandalism – a sad contrast to the reverence of our ancestors.

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On one of the previous visits, the early fencing had been bent back and we were able to spend a few moments inside.

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Then, with the light fading, and fearing that we were too late to bring the Saturday to the conclusion we had planned, we had set off for Llyn Carrig Bach, arriving just as the sun set on the western horizon. The sacrificial site is a few hundred metres across a field, and the final ascent to the raised plateau overlooking the lake is a bit of a scramble…

But, we need not have worried. Everything was waiting for us, as perfectly arranged and timed as we could have asked for…

The small ring of pilgrims collect their lights and their blessings from the priest. In complete silence they take light and token to the high edge over the water, where the priestess is waiting. She greets them with a sign and her own blessing, standing back so that they can cast away into the sacrifical water what they no longer have need of, and which is holding back the embrace of their spiritual future.

The simple rite ends. There is a feeling of great peace. It has been a day well spent. The moon and venus have borne witness to this gathering. We are blessed.

Previous Parts of this series of blogs:

Part One, Part Two,

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©Copyright Stephen Tanham, 2016.

Of Ash and Seed – The mound in the dark grove…

anglesey-bryn-holy-island-wales-087“We might have to go back to the hotel…”  I didn’t look around as I was busy following the car in front and anyway, the snowy mountains of the mainland filled the horizon. My companion had been distracted during the packing process and had not really registered how light the hold-all had felt as it was placed in the boot of the car. One leather bag had, possibly, been left behind. We could not turn back as we followed the others to the first stop of the day… nor could we stop to check until we reached the car park. Yes, we were a bag down. We would have to go back, but not until we had seen this particular site.

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I have wanted to see Bryn Celli Ddu, ‘the hill in the dark grove’, for a very long time. So has Stuart, so the fact that Steve had chosen to include it in the weekend was a real gift. It is, by far, the best known prehistoric monument on Anglesey and one well-known to many with an interest in the ancient places of our ancestors.

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The ‘hill’ refers, perhaps, to the burial mound… a passage tomb. The ‘dark grove’ is no more…though whether the grove was of living wood or of standing stones, we may never know. We do know a good deal about the history of this site, in archaeological terms at least, yet its secrets remain shrouded beyond the mists of memory or conscious knowledge.

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The tomb lies around half a mile from the little car park. The path takes you across a stream and between high hedges, with a sudden reveal at the end… by which time I was fair bouncing, even though I know full well that what remains is not what was. You are greeted by a green mound, pierced by a narrow ‘window’ guarded by a standing stone on one side. The passage that leads within the tomb lies on the other side. The mound is encircled by a ditch and flanked with stones. It looks perfect, but was, in fact, partially reconstructed in the 20th century. The mound would once have been much bigger and the site itself encompasses far more than is contained within this rural enclosure, with standing stones and carved stones in the nearby fields and on the ridge close by.

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The archaeologists have been thorough here, within the extent of knowledge. The earliest remains at the site are a series of post holes, dated back six thousand years through radiocarbon testing of the pine charcoal found in the holes. The next phase of construction was the building of the henge, a thousand years later. A henge is an inner ditch surrounded by an outer bank or earthwork. Here the henge is 69 feet across, though the bank is long gone and only the ditch survives. Within this space, a stone circle of 17, mainly paired, stones was raised. and at the same time, the spiral-carved Pattern Stone was installed.The current Pattern Stone is not the original, but a replica set into its original position, but whose carvings have already faded. The real stone is now in the National Museum of Wales.

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Original Pattern Stone. Image: Wolfgang Sauber (CCAS 3.0)

Beneath several of the standing stones, human cremations were buried whilst within the henge itself, a single, human ear bone was interred beneath a flat stone and you have to wonder at the significance of that. At the entrance to the tomb, an unusual burial of a young ox was found and within the tomb itself the remains of bones and cremations, as well as pieces of quartz, shells, a bead and arrow heads.

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It was yet another thousand years before the site was again drastically altered. The circle was dismantled. Several stones were deliberately damaged, others were smashed. They were used to build the current tomb, with its mound much larger than the reconstructed mound, completely enclosing the area within the ring of kerb-stones. The current, reduced mound allows you to see the standing stones of the circle that were re-used to form the entrance of the passage…and a spectacular and unusual central pillar graces the inner chamber.

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Information board at National Museum of Wales. Image: Wolfgang Sauber (CCAS 3.0)

They are curious stones in themselves, looking very like the petrified wood that Rupert Soskin and Michael Bott had suggested for the central, shaped pillar. Whether this is the case or whether they simply look like wood-in-stone, life-in-death, may not be as important as whether our ancestors too saw the similarity and had chosen them deliberately for that reason. There is no reason why they could not have done so and I have to wonder if it is these gnarled stones that are the trees of the ‘mound in the dark grove’.

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Perhaps the most striking aspect of the site, though, is invisible…at least in midwinter. The 28 ft long passageway is aligned, like Maes Howe and Newgrange, with the midsummer sunrise, when light would stream down the passageway to illuminate the inner chamber. There may also have been a similar ‘roofbox’ to the one at Newgrange, that frames the incoming light to focus it on a specific point at the solstice, as well as other possible astronomical alignments.

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These days, the reduced size of the mound leaves part of the internal structure naked and allows the ingress of light through the rear of the chamber that would once have been within the mound. At least for the living. In many places we have found features that suggest to us that the internal structure of these monuments may have been designed to be ‘seen’ by those who had passed beyond life into the otherworld.

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For the moment, at least, we stand on the side of the living and look with eyes of wonder on the past. In that moment, we joined together in sound within the mound, then we watched and listened as the final scroll, telling the story crafted for the weekend, was read and the final drama was played out.  Then, we were led away, crossing the stream back into the lands of the living, gifted with symbolic seeds of light to carry out into the world.

“We have to go back,” said my companion. “Oh yes, we have to go back,” I agreed. I don’t think either of us were thinking of the forgotten bag at the hotel… anglesey-bryn-holy-island-wales-100

Of Ash and Seed – Candy-floss dawn

 

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We woke to clear skies…and heavy frost. Our after-dinner walk the night before had seen us wandering the deep, unlit blackness of the shore, watching the colours of the stars in the cloudless night. The temperature had dropped dramatically, so the pre-dawn frost was no surprise. Nor was it any surprise at all that two of us were already up and out, long before our companions and the sun were due to rise, walking the coastal path as far as we dared in the time before breakfast.

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There is something magical in being abroad to greet the rising of the sun, something that speaks to the soul and feeds it silently as the light slowly floods the sky, painting it in pastels and gold. Behind the sacred mountain to the west, a soft rainbow of colour marked the fleeing edge of night as we walked through the ice-crisp grass. The curve of the receding tide left marks upon virgin sand as free of footprints as before the time of Man, a reminder of the fleeting nature of our presence within Nature.

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It was still early. No-one else seemed to be out, not even the gulls whose incessant, eldritch cries tug at the heartstrings all day. We had the world to ourselves, it seemed, witnesses to the daily miracle of dawn. It makes you wonder, every time. But we were not simply observers… we too were part of that moment, feeling the cold upon our fingers and cheeks, aware of the ever-changing light and the ceaseless motion of the sea.

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To dance to the rhythm of the sun, to rise with its light and see its passing every day, echoes a greater purpose than our preoccupation with the daily needs of survival. To feel part of such beauty is to remember ourselves within a greater context than that of roles and labels, as part of the earth’s own dance and infinite variation of form.

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The world around us teaches of the journey we all take, day to day and year on year. The gift of a quiet Sunday dawn is a perfect moment, undisturbed by noise and the demands of a busy world.  To watch the shadows soften as golden light bathes them and watch the movement of the waters is to reflect upon our own voyage of endless change and our inevitable movement from unknowing to understanding.

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We walked until the sun crested the rooftops, gilding the morning in a brief burst of glory before turning back. The rocks and the little pools they held were full of ice, yet the sky above the sleeping town was aflame. There is an intimacy in such moments that is a beautiful illusion, that makes you feel as if this is the first dawn the world has ever seen, and yours the first eyes to see it.

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Illusion it may be… but this dawn has never happened before and will never happen again…and you are there, part of that moment. I see the sun rise almost every morning through my window. We watch the dawn whenever we can… and it never loses its magic nor do we lose the breathless sense of awe that it inspires. Every time. We headed back to the hotel to meet our companions for breakfast… but we had already broken our fast on beauty.

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Of Ash and Seed- Offerings

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“The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak…. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.”

Pliny the Elder, 1st century AD.

Crescentic bronze plaque with triskele decoration, from Llyn Cerrig Bach lake deposit (200 BC – 100 AD). Image: Wolfgang Sauber (CCASA3)

Although  we still bring the blessings of mistletoe into our homes at Christmas, there was no mistletoe at Bryn Celig Bach, only a sickle moon, with Venus, seen always as the light of a goddess, shining below. Copper has been seen as the Mirror of the Goddess for centuries. It may be that is one of the reasons why copper was found in the peaceful lake that is now surrounded by an airforce base. In 1943,  William Owen Roberts, a green-keeper at the local golf course, spotted a chain in the mud as the work began to dredge a pond on the airforce base. A lorry became stuck in the mud and, remembering the chain, he picked it up and attached it to the vehicle. The used it several times that day and it did not break. It was not until a drawing of it was sent to the museum in Cardiff that it was identified as a gang chain, used to chain five slaves together by the neck.

Over the next four years, locals found many other objects at the site and Roberts took responsibility for them wrapping them in sackcloth and keeping them safe through the war years. Eventually they brought a veritable treasure trove of 181 artefacts into the light. The objects, many of bronze and copper, dated from 300 BC to around AD 100. They seem to share a common and warlike thread in many cases and it has been suggested that offerings to the gods were made here in times of war. It has even been proposed that a mass offering was made here by the Druids when they knew that Suetonius Paulinus was coming to obliterate then in AD 60.

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Many of the items, that included items as diverse as swords, cauldrons and a bronze trumpet, had been deliberately broken and, as we approached the lake in the gathering twilight, we discussed the possible reasons behind this. Was it the act of placing the treasured item beyond reach and use that constituted the true sacrifice? Or perhaps, by ‘killing’ the item in an echo of a bloodier sacrifice, they released its spirit, offering it to the gods and allowing its power to work for them in the Otherworld.

We too were bent on ritual sacrifice. We do not share the detail of our rituals, even though we may describe them. The true magic of any ritual is the inner work and the intent of the participant. No ritual can have any effect or take root in one’s soul without that dedicated intent. It is not enough to gesture and declaim, not even in the grandest of temples, not even with the famed ‘barbarous names’ on our lips. It is the truth of what is in the heart that matters… the inner dedication… and that can make even the everyday tasks of life itself both a ritual and a joy.

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Nor do we pretend to resurrect, or possess any special knowledge of, the ancient forms. What we can do, though, is echo in our own way, the essence of what we understand. Such a rite, coming from the heart, does not need to claim to be anything other than it is. It was in this spirit that, on the banks of an ancient lake, we each ritually cast away those ‘artefacts’ of the ego that, though cherished, no longer serve us on our journey.

In simplicity, there was beauty. In symbols, there was a seed of light that we could each carry away into the darkening night.

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Of Ash and Seed – Spotlight on the past

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We walked the short distance from the car park by the beach to what appeared to be a beautifully preserved mound, right above the sea. Appearances can be deceptive though… this mound is not ancient, but a concrete dome covered with grass. It was built after the site was excavated in the 1950s, recreating, on the outside at least, what was thought to be the original form, to preserve and protect what lies within.

Aerial view Barclodiad y Gawres . Image: CADW ( Crown Copyright) C(CD35)
Aerial view Barclodiad y Gawres . Image: CADW ( Crown Copyright) C(CD35)

Barclodiad y Gawres, which means the ‘apronful of the giantess’, is what remains of a cruciform passage tomb, around five thousand years old,  of a type more common in the Boyne Valley in Ireland just over the sea. A legend, found in many places with similar names, tells that two giants, husband and wife, journeyed to Anglesey to build a new home. While the husband carried two huge boulders to flank the door,  his wife had her apron full of stones. When they met a cobbler on the road, they asked  how far it was to the Island. Not wanting giants in the area, he lied and told them it was still a long journey. The giantess, tired of carrying the stones, let them fall from her apron…and there they lie to this day.

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Huge and intriguing stones line the original passageway. Sadly, the site is locked in winter, though in summer you may request accompanied access from a nearby keyholder; ‘accompanied’, these days sadly because of vandalism. Even so, it is a place to see, in spite of the bars. As the torchlight illuminated small patches of the interior, I was bouncing. Fabulous chevron carvings could be seen one of the closest uprights, of a kind I am familiar with only through images. I had never seen them before with my own eyes.

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As the beam moved around the chamber, it was obvious that it would not cast sufficient light to show all the other carvings, the spirals and the diamonds that have been found there. In many ways, that seemed a fitting reminder that, no matter how many times we visit, or how professionally the archaeologists may dig, our picture of the past is forever incomplete, showing only snapshots of a way of life now lost in the spiralling memory of earth. In just the same way, we see such snapshots of our own past in memory, yet the rich story of life has seen us pass through every second since our birth.The snapshots we see of each other are even sparser. Yet still we can try to learn and understand.

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The archeological investigations have found a number of carvings, as well as the cremated remains of two youths in the western chamber. A hearth was found in the centre of the tomb, where a stew had been poured over the flames to quench them in antiquity. The stew had been composed of wrasse, eel, frog, toad, grass-snake, mouse, shrew and hare. It was then covered with limpet shells and pebbles which helped to preserve their bones.

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Was it an ancient spell, perhaps, or an offering to the ancestors or the gods of the place? Or was it a final meal, sustenance for the dead on their final journey? Were the ingredients simply what was available at the time, or did each of those creatures bring their own magical properties to the rite, so that their spirits and gifts might be offered through the flames? There are some things we will never know for certain. The fact that belief implies a choice is thrown into relief as we listen to the whispers of our own hearts.

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We listened too, at the entrance of the tomb, to readings from our friends and to the next chapter of the story woven to bind together the threads of history and spirit throughout the weekend. It was a perfect place to be as the sun began to sink towards the horizon and the end of our day. Or almost the end. There was one more place to visit before darkness erased the colours of the world and the sun entered the tomb of night…

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Of Ash and Seed – Beached

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We stopped for lunch in a surfer’s cafe in Rhosneigr very close to the sea. Once refreshed we were to go down to the beach to choose a stone for a simple but moving ritual at our final destination. Two of us left as soon as we had eaten. I live about as far from the sea as you can get in Britain and seldom get the chance to play on beaches, so take any opportunity I can get to be close to the waves.

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The sun was already low in the the sky, but still it felt like spring. My companion declined my offer to have a paddle whilst the others finished lunch, which was probably sensible, if disappointing. It was December after all and although the unusually mild weather was balmy, doubtless the sea would have proved to be a more wintry environment. Instead, we watched the sun sparkle on the water, reflecting the heavens on earth.

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We  started looking for our pebbles, drawn to the white ones as much for their symbolism as for the fact that they draw the eye. Working with the symbolism of the School, we had a fair idea of what would be required and why. We looked too at the curious formation of the blue-black rocks. Some of the rocks that emerge through the sand go back to the Pre-Cambrian era that began four and a half billion years ago and you can see the folds created by pressure as the earth, as we know it, began to shape itself.

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It is a curious feeling to consciously stand with such an unimaginable span of time beside the ceaseless motion of the sea. Beneath our feet, the  sand, each grain formed from what has gone before…and in it, our footprints. The marks of our presence are deep enough to raise ridges and cast shadows. Each foot that passes leaves its unique imprint, changing the surface utterly… for a little while. The marks are as transient as our little lives upon the earth and are soon erased by the movement of the waters that shift and shape the land.

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We were soon joined by our companions and spent a little while, each of us, searching for our stones. I would have happily pottered on the beach all afternoon at any other time, examining stones and exclaiming at the beauty of the shells… listening to the cry of the gulls. There is something about the seashore that awakens the inner child. Perhaps it is because where sky, land and sea meet and we become children again as our Mother looks on and feel secure in Her presence.

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It was, therefore, with a mixture of reluctance and excitement that we left the beach behind us. We had one more site to visit before our final destination of the day and it was a rather special one. We drove to a deserted bay as the shadows grew longer and the winter afternoon drew towards its close, bathing the world in golden light…

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