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.

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Natural authority

Portmeirion, the guide told us, was the brainchild of the architect and conservationist, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. The project had been a long time in hatching… once the idea had been conceived, he waited twenty years in order the purchase the little bay where the village now stands. Building began in 1925 and  continued until 1972.  All that was well and good, but told us little beyond the bare facts.

It was when the guide moved on that things began to fall into place. Many of the building materials… even some of the buildings themselves… had been rescued and recycled from estates and locations around the country, to save them from demolition and destruction. The gilded Buddha had come from the film set of Inn of the Sixth Happiness. A cherub had been left on the doorstep… the facade of a portico was once a fireplace… That explained the bizarre juxtaposition of styles and details and cast them in an entirely new and sympathetic light.

We began to take more notice of those details and the mystery deepened. Windows that we had thought would cast such beautiful traceries of light into their rooms were revealed to be no more than paint and plaster… masterpieces of trompe l’oeil….like the three arched and three round windows that grace one side of the villa. Carved reliefs were the same visual trickery, no more than flat paint, many of them created by Williams-Ellis’ daughter.

It was not until we reached higher ground that we really noticed the rooflines that sported only fancy facades and the front halves of finials and cupolas… Perspective makes a house the size of a small bungalow look like a mansion. In fact, the whole village is a beautiful illusion…but we had a feeling there was more going on even than that.

Williams-Ellis’ vision was to create a village entirely in harmony with the natural landscape, instead of following the prevailing fashion for subduing it. That explained the villas cascading down cliffs, and the rocks and tree roots running through buildings. He was passionate about the landscape and served on many government committees, advising on conservation and railing against the urbanisation of the rural landscape. He had also been instrumental in setting up the National Parks in England and Wales that preserve our natural heritage. Clearly, the man had a passion for the land.

Yet we wondered about his attitude to authority. As an architect, he was, by definition, happy to impose his own authority on the landscape…and yet it was obvious that he both loved and respected the land and its natural beauty. At Portmeirion, it seems as if he willingly embraced the authority of Nature.

On the other hand, there are many traditional symbols of authority in the works of art and craft dotted around the village. Eagles and lions are traditional symbols of Empire, and we had already noted that all the lions seemed to have rather pained or strained expressions… Was the architect making a subtle point here? Would he have missed the fact that his Eastern lion was holding a severed right arm… the same arm missing from his Buddha? Maybe that has raised a wry smile.

Perhaps it was no more than coincidence. Just what was going on here? There was the yacht that had never sailed, moored to the jetty and named ‘friends reunited’… yet the yacht is made of concrete and is part of the jetty. There is the lighthouse in the wood.  A myriad icons and fragments of religious architecture in a village with no place of worship… a loose cannon on the hilltop, pointing towards Harlech Castle. Could a Commander of the British Empire really be cocking such a snook at established authority?

Perhaps the most telling detail was the shrine to the architect himself. A bust of Williams-Ellis looks out on his creation from behind a perpetual flame in the Town Hall, where wedding ceremonies are held. The bust is flanked by two laughing masks… and sits between the ladies and gentlemen’s toilets. And his funeral arrangements made a point too; his ashes were sent up in a rocket to become part of a firework display over the estuary… He had certainly had something to say.

Somehow this seemed to be tying in very well with the theme of our visit. Steve had suggested we consider the notion of authority and, drawing upon the character of The Prisoner, whether, if our lives were faced with an imposed change, we would ‘accept’ or ‘resist’.

You could debate that question all day, but not, I think, until you had defined your terms. Life offers us change at every moment and many of them would count as imposed. They occur without a ‘by your leave’ and may be part of a natural evolution or something that turns your life upside down. Accept or resist? It is not, I believe, a straightforward choice.

The change itself may be irresistable and immutable… the authority may be as  unassailable as an earthquake. Death is a change and cannot be resisted when it strikes… but nor can a sunrise. To resist the unresistable seems a futile act of rebellion, a mere exercise of wilfulness. Yet there are many changes that need not and indeed should not be accepted. Choices are to be made, even within those absolutes that define who we are and will become and the exercise of free will is part of our purpose.

It all reminds me of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The surreal landscape of Portmeirion echoed the debate. The authority of Nature had been accepted here; the rocks, trees and curves of the land itself were allowed to define and shape the vision of Man as buildings grew around them. Details were added as architectural items were simply left at the gate and choices were made about their disposition. And yet, the vision of the architect… his authority… now clothes the landscape. Perhaps there is a lesson in that… that where Man and Nature can work in harmony, deferring to each other’s authority for a greater good, change can be beautiful.

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Rabbit-hole or Looking-glass?

We were way too early at Portmeirion. Our companions were not due until ten, the gates did not open until half past nine, but we wandered over anyway about twenty past, just to get a first glimpse…and were allowed in straight away. This proved to be a real gift as we had the entire Village pretty much to ourselves for a while…just long enough to get the best shots of what was to prove a far more interesting place than we could have imagined.

I have always wanted to see the place, having only seen it in pictures. I was aware that it had been inspired by the Italian village of Portofino, that it had been used for the filming of the iconic TV series, The Prisoner, and that it had been built, almost in the spirit of a folly, by the vision of one man. Other than that, I knew nothing.

I was prepared to be disappointed, simply because I didn’t want to be. At first glance, from the gate, it looked none too promising. The No 6 cafe where we were to meet our companions, some fairly drab tarmac and what looked like a cardboard cut-out of a mermaid. Nightmare scenarios of a small-time Disneyland began to whisper in my mind.

It just goes to show how little you can judge anything at first glance. Had we but known it, we had already blithely walked past several important clues to the nature of the place. I’d even photographed them… but I had only looked at, not seen, them. And that is always a mistake.

We thought that the gracious Italianate villa was really the first thing of interest, but only because we had accepted the vision of normality presented to perception by eyes and lens.

We should have been more attentive… and suspicious… passing beneath the carriage gate. But why would we be? It sort of reminded me of France. And Italy…and Scotland… but apart from the mural within the ceiling of the inner arch, I paid it too little notice, focusing on the details instead of looking at what was in front of me.

The drama started as soon as we were through one arch and faced with another. The elegant pastels were replaced with hotter colours and even stranger details… modern brick walling coupled with mullioned stone windows and wrought iron.

Yet, the other side of the building went back to primrose yellow… with Georgian windows and canopies, more of the modern bricks and a pair of caryatids… But trying to resolve that anomaly had suddenly become the least of our problems.

Definitely not Disneyland… you could tell. There was more to it than showmanship. It reminded me more, somehow, of Alice’s Wonderland… I can honestly say that I have never seen anything quite like it. But even then, caught perhaps by astonishment, we still didn’t ‘get’ it. Not even when we had both commented on the juxtaposition of the hanging black sheep beneath the declaiming Christ.

The guy who had built this place had a weird mind. That was the first and obvious conclusion. What kind of weird remained to be seen. Buildings were mismatched with their architectural details. The colours were astounding, artwork everywhere and either the land had been constructed or shaped to take the buildings or he buildings had been built around the rocks.

A golden Buddha sits serenely in a bright blue ‘cave’ made of hewn stone. Cupolas tipped with gold glint in the morning light. Exotic flowers and plants line the streets…

…and in the centre is the plaza with a giant chess board and the oddest collection of gates and colonnades you can imagine.

The mind of the man behind all this was either that of a lunatic or a genius and so far, it was hard to tell which. The place is too strange to call it beautiful. Yet I cannot think of another word to do it justice. It is more than ‘quirky’, too serious to be dismissed as ‘touristy’…  perhaps ‘fabulous’ or ‘fantastic’ in their literary sense would be the right word…

For once, I wished I had done more research, but knowing there was information to come, I had been content to wait. I had no idea what kind of mind could conceive and execute such an architectural fantasy. Was it overweening arrogance to use, perhaps move, the landscape and the rocks? Was it a case of ‘more money than sense’? Or were we missing something here…

Gradually, it began to dawn on us that we were. I think it was the ‘terrified lion’ sculpture that finally set the mental wheels in motion, though it would be a good while before they finally began to pick up enough speed.

We had not fallen down the rabbit-hole into Alice’s Wonderland… we had been taken through her Looking Glass into a microcosmic look at ourselves… and once that realisation began to dawn, it changed everything.

Who was this guy, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who had built this incredible fantasy? Why had he done so and what was he trying to tell us?

We began to make our way back up towards the gates where we were to meet our companions, incredibly grateful to have had the Village to ourselves for a little while and very glad we were going to have a second chance to wander its spaces. There was an awful lot to learn.

The visitors were beginning to filter in. Soon it would be busy and that would change the atmosphere of the place. We would have had no chance of seeing what we had seen with crowds of people milling around. The colors, shapes and details are distracting enough on their own…

With our companions, we headed for the No 6 cafe, for coffee and that missing breakfast at last… where Steve would set the scene for the psychological exploration of the morning and where we could begin to process what was slowly coming to light. The man was a genius… still weird, but a genius…  But it was not until we joined the guided tour after breakfast that we finally began to realise in what way. It only took a few facts to completely change our perspective and make all the clues begin to fall into place. Portmeirion has a sense of humour.

Going west – the accidental tourist

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Frankly, I thought it appallingly bad planning. Could the town not have chosen a different day to ceremonially install their new mayor? It isn’t as if we hadn’t advertised our itinerary for the weekend, culminating with a visit to the Cathedral at St Davids and lunch in the refectory. In that order. But no… the Cathedral was otherwise occupied and would be for some time to come. It was still occupied by the time we had finished warming up with pots of tea… and still too busy after I had wandered round the outside of the church with the camera, trying to get a few good shots in spite of the rain that was now beating a steady tattoo on the lens. We were at a loose end.

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“Another twenty minutes or so,” said the gentleman manning the door. Some chose to stay in the warmth of the refectory. Others disappeared, planning to gather again shortly. I wandered off over the little stream to be a tourist. Tourism is not the point of these weekends and although we have a plan of where we will go and what we want to see, we have learned to be flexible in our approach, shunning rigorous timetables in favour of time to savour the sites we visit. Sometimes, though, there is nothing wrong with a little tourism. The Cathedral is not the only thing worth visiting in St Davids and, with little time at our disposal, the Bishop’s Palace is a good place to while away a few moments. To be fair, it deserves a lot more than I had to give it, being part of one of the oldest and certainly most important Christian sites in Wales.

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We’d had our first sight of the ruined palace as we approached the cathedral from St Non’s, watching the remarkable architectural details reveal themselves through the mist and rain. Fifteen hundred years ago, a monastery grew up here. It was not then the peaceful spot we know today and the monks who lived there saw their home sacked by Norse raiders, then quietly rebuilt it, at least ten times over the course of the next four hundred years. It was only after the Norman invasion of 1066 that the monks began to know peace. The strong presence of the Norman barons imposed fortifications on the growing town, protecting the monastery and the relics it housed.

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St Davids was already recognised as an important spiritual centre. William the Conqueror himself came to pay his respects to the relics of St David in 1081. Later, in 1284, King Edward I would also make the pilgrimage. The remains of the current palace reflect that later date; the building was begun around that time, and work continued until the middle of the following century. The Reformation saw the demise of the palace; its fall into ruin much hastened by Bishop William Barlow, who sold the lead from the roof in 1536 to pay the dowries of his five daughters… the equivalent of twelve years income from the episcopal see!

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It is always curious to begin to reconstruct in imagination a site that is now but a shadow of its former self. It matters little whether it is a stone circle, a tomb or a palace… it is the small, almost insignificant things that give the real clues, not to how a place looked… but to how it was. Here, the warm tones of the volcanic rock and local stone have been embellished by a chequerboard pattern. Great windows that perhaps once have held stained glass pierce the walls and arcades decorate every face of the palace, inside and out. Wide spaces, high ceilings, towers and turrets… this is a visible show of wealth and power, more temporal than divine. The little monastery that faithfully guarded its treasured relics against the invaders was obliterated by its own

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The ruined palace is now crumbling, its wealth generated by tourists, its fabric held tenuously together by those who seek to maintain the presence of a building that has itself become a relic. Its empty shell holds more than memory, it holds a lesson pertinent to why we had gathered for the weekend. We too start small, growing with the simplicity of a child that sees the world unclouded by the complexities of adulthood. As we grow, the malleable clay of our personality is shaped by choice, reaction and experience and the ego builds walls behind which it can hide from invaders. But the protective walls are stark and feel like a prison, so we add embellishments in an attempt to display an illusion of personal power… and, if left untended, those too will eventually crumble and decay becoming both a danger and a liability that can cost us dearly. Like the palace, what began in simplicity, grows beyond our ability to sustain it and beyond its true purpose.

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The first monastery here was a simple place, designed as a vessel to hold something sacred. Overlaid with the trappings of power and ambition, that purpose was lost. The clay of our being is ours to shape. It too holds something sacred… whether you believe in the soul or simply believe in the indefinable spark of animating life. We owe it to ourselves to make sure the vessel that we build is fit for its purpose. It is not in the walls that we build, but in the space within, where we live and have our being. It is not the vessel, but the space within that holds  the wine.

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