Spreading wings

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The hill was a verdant emerald rising into a sapphire sky that sparkled with motes of light… so high and clear. My companion walked behind, following at a far more sedate pace as I ran headlong to the summit, an uncompromising, absolute joy within that seemed to inundate every fibre of being. The white path led me higher and higher until I could see the curvature of the earth and felt I could reach out my arms and embrace the whole world and gather it to my breast…

My dreams have been vivid of late. They always are but even more so than usual, with the clarity and reality I knew as a child. I recall the flying dreams with the rollercoaster feeling in the stomach… I cannot have been more than eight years old and every night I would soar. Far too young to have any knowledge or interest in aerodynamics, lift or thrust, I can yet remember the minute adjustments needed to stay in the air and direct my flight. I seem to remember them in my flesh even though it was just a dream. I can feel even now the memory of physical sensation as my body swooped and banked through the air, learning to ride the wind, seeking the air-currents and updraughts, like a small fish playing in water, darting and diving through sunbeams. It was sheer joy. Every night as I closed my eyes I would wait for that first moment of flight with happy anticipation.

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It felt utterly real… the sensation of rise and fall in the gut, the air on my face, the wind in my hair. So real that my waking self would stand on my bed beneath the window, certain I would not fall but would fly if I launched myself from there… yet knowing also that it was supposed to be impossible. Wasn’t it? There was always that doubt in the mind, even though the body felt it knew just what to do.

So real was the experience for that young mind that it was, in those moments by the window, impossible to distinguish dream from reality. It was as if I was perfectly poised between two realities, each equally valid by their own rules and in their own world… which I believe they are. Yet I was in neither… I was apart from both, a third reality, if you will, where I was subject to neither of the others but could see and judge with yet another part of me what fragment of experience should fit where.

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I had always been aware of the existence of that higher part of being that we call the soul, the essence… and many other names. It was simply something I grew up with, that awareness. Yet this was the first time I remember feeling conscious of its reality. Not because I could see or feel it specifically, but the observation of the two realities by the third… and the fact that on yet another level I was somehow ‘seeing’ that observer… So what was seeing it? And was anything watching that? And where did ‘I’ end and Something Else begin?  This seemed to ‘click’ and I understood somehow in a way for which I am still not sure I have words.

To the eight year old mind that was something of a revelation. To us now, as adults, it is an illustration of infinite regress, a concept we explored at the first of the Silent Eye’s Glastonbury talks some years ago, yet it took a while before I made that connection. One of the inner ‘observers’ finds that highly amusing, that the conscious mind should take the best part of half a century to really realise a gift given so young.

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However that is often the way of things and we are adept at accepting what we know and believe, filing them in the cabinet of facts by which we live and not revisiting them with the added experience and understanding of years. As we grow and learn our store of facts expands, but we seldom take out the old ones and update them. We can, indeed, get very protective of them and refuse to even consider that we may have misunderstood, or been plainly wrong, through lack of a salient piece of information.

Over the past few years, as I have examined more and more the entrenched beliefs to which I have clung, I have found myself being obliged to discard and update many of them. I have also revisited many ideas I discarded as facile when I was much younger, realising that with the knowledge and experience I can now bring to them, they are richer by far that I imagined when I first dismissed them. The adventures with Stuart and our books have made me re-evaluate many things, while the School has seen me set aside the framework of many decades and begin to look at the essence of those beliefs from a different perspective.

When, some years ago, a friend and renowned author who had walked a similar path, told me he had spent half a lifetime building the inner Qabalistic Tree of Life… and the rest steadily dismantling it, I was surprised and recoiled from the very idea… now I know what he meant.

The ideas we cling to limit us. We do not seek beyond their bounds… why would we if they satisfy us? They are our beliefs and they ‘work’ for us. Yet, should we step across those self-imposed boundaries, prepared to risk seeing what might lie beyond, a whole world of possibility may open before us. It is worth a thought. Who knows… some part of us may even learn to fly.

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Looking for answers…

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It wasn’t a dark and stormy night… this book that lies open on my desk begins with a rather less evocative phrase. More mundane  and far less atmospheric…though the writer who had penned them both was the same. I’ve never really seen what was wrong with that opening, though it has passed into the realms of ridicule as ‘purple prose’ and the Right Honorable Lord Lytton now has an anti-literary prize named after him, awarded for the worst opening phrase of a story. A tad unfair, I feel. His style was the product of a bygone era and a society that held different tastes close to its tightly corseted bosom.

This particular book, I haven’t read in a good many years, but as it is fairly obscure yet has been mentioned by three people in as many weeks, I thought I should rummage through the shelves and find my battered and dog-eared copy. I’ve always liked the work of Bulwer Lytton, a prolific novelist and playwright.  His style, I grant you, is heavy and sometimes ponderous… like many writers of his epoch, he will seldom use one word when five will do. His storytelling, however, is a different thing and he manages to evoke times long past and populate them with unexpected characters. Little known today, his ‘dark and stormy night’ is not the only phrase he has added to the language. His novels were hugely influential when they were first published. ‘Pelham‘ changed fashionable dress. Verdi, Wagner and others wrote operas based on his historical works. His friend, Charles Dickens, changed the ending of ‘Great Expectations‘ on his suggestion and Bram Stoker was inspired to write ‘Dracula‘ after reading Lytton’s ‘A Strange Story’, which was the first of his works that I read. The Hollow Earth theory was also popularised by Lytton in ‘The Coming Race’, published in 1861 and was credited with helping to launch the science fiction genre. 

I was barely fifteen when my grandfather gave me two of Lytton’s works. ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ and ‘A Strange Story’. The books could not have been more different. One, a vividly portrayed piece of quasi-historical drama, the other a dark and unsettling tale, set in what seemed to be my own backyard. The locations were referred to only by their initials, but the town sounded remarkably like my own and the Abbey and the old house sounded like those at Kirkstall, Simply because of that, I ploughed through the heavy prose when most of my contemporaries were turning to Barbara Cartland for ‘historical’ fiction.

The tale tells of youth and ego that seeks to perpetuate itself through the fear of not-being, drawing on the life of others in true vampiric style, though without the blood. It is one of those stories where nothing happens… yet lives are changed as the characters act out their fate. The reader may be changed too, as questions begin to form in the nether regions of the mind and parallels are drawn with less lurid occurrences in daily life. I went on to read his ‘Zanoni’,  where a choice between immortality and humanity lifts the veil on many arcane themes; that book also brought questions and my grandfather’s library was a gold-mine.

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Dion Fortune, Robert Graves, Aleister Crowley and MacGregor Mathers were probably not average teen reading. Many of the books my grandfather gave me raised questions. Some gave me answers too, or better still, were signposts that showed me where to look to find my own. In that I was lucky; far luckier than I would realise for many years. At the time, I just assumed that when such questions arose, everyone would have someone with whom to discuss them. It was not until much later that I found that my situation was the exception rather than the norm. In those days, books on alternative approaches to spirituality were still rare and hard to find and, even today, many will have no-one with whom they can explore the deepest thoughts that arise within the hidden regions of the soul.

We all have questions. Many people still turn to books to explore their ideas and seek inspiration, but with the advent of the internet it has become even simpler to tap in a query and see what comes up. The problem is that there is just so much information out there…and most of it conflicting. From the strangest concepts to the harshest diatribes against them, the genuine seeker will find every possible shade of opinion, every argument for and against and every wild and wacky theory there is… and where do you start to sift through them?

Common sense is usually a good place to begin and filters out the worst offenders. Anything that promises the earth will probably not deliver. Especially if it says all you have to do is sit back and pay your hard earned cash for them to wave a magic wand that makes the world right. The wonderful and inspirational sites that tell you that all is right and beautiful have a point; I would agree with them in principle… but when you are stuck in confusion or a dark place in your life, that isn’t really all that helpful. Abstract ideas are all very well, but sometimes what you need is a stout rope… an idea of what you can do to climb out of the hole and there are many excellent schools, groups and systems out there who will throw that rope to you. But how do you know which one?

The best advice I ever read on how to find the school, organisation or system that would work for you came from Dion Fortune when she wrote that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. She advised that the seeker look at those who are part of those systems … not those who have gone a little way and left for one reason or another, but those who have walked the path and stuck with it. Look and see whether those people have something that speaks to you, something you can trust.

The best advice I have ever heard, was simply to ‘ask the question’. Turn your attention to the quiet place within and listen to the prompting of the heart. The spiritual seeker has already knocked on the door and the wordless inner voice, that expression of the higher self, is waiting to answer.

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The space under the stairs…

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I am not at all certain what it was that sparked the memory, but I had a very clear picture in my mind today of a magical place that has not existed for the past half a century. I could call it my childhood home, though we probably only lived there for about five years, until I was ten. I have a good visual memory and remember even my very first nursery, but this was the house where isolated vignettes of memory became a continuous story… and nowhere was more fascinating to a small child than the space under the stairs.

As you entered the house, the staircase rose to your left, the kitchen door was on the right, and the hallway led straight ahead to the living room. In the dark, triangular space beneath the stairs was a small table upon which sat my mother’s Imperial typewriter… a great black affair with a temperamental red and black ribbon and keys picked out in ivory. It was heavy, already ancient and each key made a satisfying ‘clunk’ when depressed. I spent hours typing on that thing, though I had to use the red inked part of the ribbon, as my mother needed the black for her writing. I must have typed ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ more times than I had hot dinners, disentangling the arms with their raised letters when my fingers worked quicker than they could.

On the back wall was a bookcase that held my mother’s manuscripts, a set of encyclopaedias and a carved wooden bear she had been given in Switzerland for her twenty-first birthday. The tallest wall held another bookcase, guarded by an alligator. Quite why she had this product of the taxidermist’s art in her possession, I never really knew. I did ask, but there appeared to be no reasonable answer. Although I was never entirely happy about stuffing animals and birds, having seen too many of them under their glass domes in my great grandmother’s red velvet sitting room, I did quite like this alligator. He smiled, and, when a guardian of knowledge smiles on you, all is right with the world.

Behind the alligator, there were books, of every description. From fact to fiction, on every conceivable subject… and, in spite of my tender years, I was free to read them all. Victorian moral tales rubbed shoulders with Madam Blavatsky and Spike Milligan. T. Lobsang Rampa shared a shelf with an autographed copy of Longfellow. I curled up with Bullfinch’s Mythology and Edward Lear and was as likely to read myself to sleep with Wilde, Bronte or Wheatley as I was to pick up Enid Blyton or C. S. Lewis. It was, had I but known it at the time, an amazing education. And not just for the books I was able to read.

My mother’s philosophy was simple… if I read something I was too young to understand, it would do me no harm and might encourage me to learn. For words I did not know, there was a dictionary. For things of which I knew nothing, there were the encyclopaedias. For concepts I did not understand, I could ask. And, as long as I could frame the question, there would always be an answer.

The answers might be phrased in a way a child could understand, they were often illustrated by analogies, but they were never ‘dumbed down’ or dismissive. Nor were the answers always cut and dried. While one plus one might equal two, discussions on more obscure subjects, like the nature of the soul, the thorny question of whether we only have ‘three score years and ten’ to learn all a human soul might need to learn and whether or not reincarnation was a reality, were always left open-ended. We explored the ideas, discussed the options and examined a variety of beliefs but the conversation would still end with the same thought… “Only you can find your answer.”

How could that be? If something is true or false, I thought, surely it is always true or false? It took a while to realise that simply being true is not Truth and that although there must be Truth somewhere in the vastness of Creation, we are probably not be big enough to see much of it. Our perspective is that of a grain of sand looking at the enormity of the Universe… and our vision is limited.

Slowly, I learned to ask the question… not just of others, though I learned much from listening to their opinions, thoughts and beliefs, but of something both within and without myself. There is always an answer… though sometimes I am still too ‘young’ to understand it and it only becomes clearer as time and growth open the gates of understanding. Over the years, I found many possible answers, but every so often one comes along that feels ‘right’ in an inexplicable way. It does not necessarily mean that it is true, but it has a rightness about it that answers the need of the moment. Some are discarded as new facets of life open, others become part of who you are and evolve as you grow.

The lessons we learn as children are not always good. We learn behaviours, prejudices, fears and opinions that will shape or scar us for life. What we take on board is not always what we are taught… it can, just as easily, be a reaction against what we are taught, by life, books or people. But sometimes, we are given gifts we do not appreciate until we have lived enough to understand them better.

The alligator is long gone, his stitched seams undone, his sawdust spilled. The carved bear went missing in transit, the typewriter fell silent and the Longfellow was lost in a move. Many of those same books sit on my bookshelves today but, fifty years after we packed the space under the stairs into boxes, I still carry its magic with me.

Comfort zone…

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I felt a tad fragile and the thought of sitting in front of a bright computer screen had no appeal at all. I could have done the ironing, I suppose, but there was no hurry. I could have cuddled the dog and done nothing… which I did for a while; doing nothing can be the most productive way of spending your time. But eventually, I started to fidget. I turned to an old, familiar friendship and picked up a book.

It was not one of the many interesting books still waiting to be read, their pristine pages silently urging me to explore their secrets. No, it was a book that is falling apart from having been read by several generations of my family over the past forty years. A book I have read so many times before that it held no surprises at all, apart from the fact that, for the very first time, I was obliged to don my reading glasses.

It was just a light read, pure fiction, where the only depth is in the author’s knowledge and passion for her subject. But it was familiar… comfort food for the mind… and perfect to read when feeling the after effects of a three-day migraine. The dog curled up and snored quietly on my feet, the garden doors stood open as the rain fell and the temperature dropped, and I snuggled down with a cuppa, some hot, buttered toast and a big fluffy dressing gown to indulge in a medicinal dose of familiarity.

We need that comfortable familiarity sometimes. It can be healing, reassuring and all that is required to set us to rights. Whether it is the hearty, wholesome food of childhood that brings back warm memories, the encouragement of a familiar smile or a story we know so well that we can conjure its landscape with as much ease as if we were stepping into a wardrobe. It gives us a place of physical and emotional security that wraps around us like a blanket round a babe and keeps us safe. There are no challenges, no surprises, just things we know and love.

When we are warm and cosy, we do not want to move. Waking without an alarm in what is always the most comfortable bed in the world at that moment, there is a time in which we simply do not move. It may last no more than seconds, or we may turn over and go back to sleep, but while it lasts, all is well with the world. We have no desire at all to leave the warmth behind, step into a frozen morning and face the requirements of the day.

Minds work the same way as bodies. They like familiarity. The patterns of habit obviate the need to expend energy. There is no challenge… we can function on auto-pilot as long as we stick to what we know well. Ask our minds to do or try something new and unfamiliar and they will either jump at the adventure or go into siege mode, digging themselves ever deeper into the duvet of entrenched perspectives from which only the most determined assault will dislodge them. Like a body that refuses to leave the sofa, book and cake, such unmoving, persistent entrenchment will only end in a loss of flexibility and a heaviness of spirit.

There is nothing at all wrong with being comfortable in mind, heart or body… on the contrary; contentment and comfort go hand in hand. But that only works well when we are open to other experiences than those within our bubble of familiarity. When choosing to ‘snuggle down’ for a while is a choice and not our default position. If I read only the books I know by heart, I would never learn anything new. If I walked only familiar paths, I would never see a different horizon. If my mind were closed to opinions and beliefs other than those I hold, my own would never evolve and grow… and neither would I.

Step outside the comfort-zone and the world is an unfamiliar place, where challenges, fears and adventures await… often in the very same place. Accept the challenge, face the fear and embrace the adventure. We will always have a comfort-zone, but the adventure may not wait.

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: In search of breakfast

We were surprised to find that breakfast would not be forthcoming. While we could, undoubtedly, have booked it separately, it was almost a matter of principle not to do so. I consider it cheating to neither include the meal in the price, nor to signal its omission in big bold letters where you can’t fail to see it when you book. In fact, although their advertisement mentions that they do provide a cooked breakfast, I have yet to find where it says that it is not included… Which all meant that we got a very early start on the day as we did not have to hang around waiting for service. We downed a banana and a coffee apiece, then headed out into the mist instead…and were very glad we had.

We pulled over at the first lay-by to get a picture of the mountains, wreathed in cloud and looking none too promising. I caught the colour as I pulled in and grabbed the camera while we debated whether or not the buzzard would allow us to get out of the car without flying away, seeing as he was right bedside us and watching the idiots in the green tin can. We watched and snapped through open windows then decided to risk it. He let us get out and snap again… then flew off slowly, taking up a perch on the other side of the road.

As we and the bird were all hunting for our breakfast in the Welsh landscape, there was a sense of shared purpose; an understanding of a common quest. It is an entirely different feeling when wild creatures permit you to come so close without fear… far different from the undoubted joy of being able to get closer still to a trained or captive creature. It is as if they are inviting you in to their world… a place of deeper wonders and heightened senses… and it is always both a gift and an honour. So our day began with beauty, joy and excitement.

We took a while to pick out what we could see of the distant mountains, using the identification panel by which we had inadvertently stopped. Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa, was lost behind the veiling mists. Snowdon stands three and a half thousand feet above sea level and means simply ‘snow hill’, but its true name, Yr Wyddfa, means ‘the tumulus’ or ‘the barrow’. Legend has it that a cairn was built over the giant, Rhudda Gawr, after he was defeated by King Arthur. It is a good tale. The giant had defeated two warring armies and had cut off the beards of their kings, Nyniaw and Peibaw, to make himself a cap. Twenty six kings brought their armies against him, but he defeated them all and took their beards as trophies with which to make himself a cloak. He sent a message to Arthur, demanding his beard too, so he could patch a hole in the cloak. Arthur, incensed, sent his refusal and the giant marched against the King intent on victory and the acquisition of another and more prestigious beard. Rhudda Gawr was defeated by the king, who smote him with such a mighty blow that his sword passed straight through the giant’s armour and clove his crown in two. King Arthur ordered that a cairn be raised over the body of the giant that was known as Gwyddfa Rhudda, Rhudda’s Cairn… and centuries later, when the giant’s name was forgotten, Yr Wyddfa.

Pools of pale sunlight were already bathing some of the slopes of the hills. Perhaps, we thought, the mist would dissipate and the clouds lift. It was forecast to be a nice day, for all the moist grisaille with which we were surrounded. We could only wait and see, accepting the moment and the gifts that it brought; knowing too that the magical watercolour landscape before us was changing, minute by minute with the dance of light and shade. Once the sun broke through it would be a place of brighter hues and harder edges…and had we stayed from breakfast, we would never have seen this transient beauty or the wings of the morning.

We were not meeting our companions until ten o’clock when, we were told, our first stop of the day would open. We found the place by accident as we followed our noses, noting that in fact, it opened earlier than that. Still, we were after food and, early as it was, somewhere had to be open… We continued along the main road, certain of success, until we realised that anything that would be doing food, wasn’t yet. Not that we minded too much. Turning away from the main road, we headed up to Ffestiniog through some glorious countryside, trying to ignore the ugly scarring of the quarries and mines that have given the area its difficult, underpaid and often dangerous livelihood for so long. There seemed such a stark contrast though, between the modern and the ancient mines, where we had looked in wonder at how man can work with Nature to harvest her wealth. Efficiency and productivity have long since erased respect for the earth from those who seek only profit, but as many of my own family were once miners, I know that the men who work the stones and tunnels still have a healthy respect for the earth.

Abandoning our search for sustenance in the hills and villages, we crossed the estuary and headed towards the town’s most prominent landmark, Harlech Castle. We would be seeing it again later… but for now, our quest had at last been successful. Between biscuits and chocolate bars, the little shop beneath the Norman walls had provided for our immediate needs. We turned the car around, heading back towards our ten o’clock rendezvous. We would be early…very early… but that was okay. Maybe we would be able to grab a coffee in Portmeirion…

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Under hill… and under construction

The road through Snowdonia was spectacular…at least, once we had left behind the rush hour traffic on the main coast road that delayed us.  Realising we might miss the pre-evening drinks, my companion sent a text to say we would be a little late, while I tackled roads I would otherwise have loved to play on. It had been a long, fabulous day and we were looking forward to a shower and a change of clothes before dinner. It was not until we reached the hotel in Tremadog that we found the message alerting us to a change of plan and a scramble to reach the restaurant in time for dinner.

The tide was out when we reached Borth-y-Gest, a Victorian village on the Glaslyn estuary. Boats were beached on the sands of the little harbour and distant clouds blurred the view across the river to the Rhinog Mountains. After the impossibly vivid green of the hills, the muted grey-gold tones made the coastline seem like another world entirely. There was a greater sense of unreality within the quiet urban landscape than there had been on the heights. We were installed at the booked table in the restaurant to await our companions, feeling the difference acutely and probably about as comfortable as the fish on the menu. We had not long to wait though before we could greet our friends and their presence changed the atmosphere, bringing us back into the moment for the communal meal.

We gathered after dinner on the grass beside the bay to take the first of our readings together, inviting others to participate in the random choosing. It was an interesting and unexpected reading, with a dynamic and creative masculine tone. Although the little harbour was a quiet, sleepy place, after the bright, green silence of the hills, the difference between the natural evolution of the world and the imposed vision of man had seldom seemed more apparent; the reading fit well. As a species, we are capable of changing our world so drastically and dynamically, and over the course of the weekend we would see many striking examples of how our vision has shaped the earth.

Tremadog, the place where we would be staying for the weekend, was a good example. Civil engineer, William Madocks, bought the land in 1798 and founded the planned village of  Tremadog. He laid out the settlement beneath the dramatic backdrop of the mountain cliff that dwarfs the houses, with the town hall facing down a long straight street,the soaring rock at its back. We went for a walk on return to our hotel, the Golden Fleece, noting the details. Madocks believed that men should be able to live and work with choice. He built both church and chapel, included inns and a school to serve the residents. It is efficiently planned and with a number of details that give it character and  lift it away from the mind-numbing blandness of many modern developments, there is an indefinable quality that has only a tenuous hold… a homeliness that comes only with the organic growth of community.

My own town, like so many others, is now building ‘villages’. The buildings in these concentrations of housing are carefully designed to give an impression of diversity. Many draw upon the old concept of ‘street houses’, terraces with shared walls and aspect, where once a lifestyle was truly shared and communities pulled together to look after their own. When your most intimate laundry was strung across the street to dry, raised high on pulleys for the traffic to pass beneath, and several families shared the toilet at the end of the block, there was really nowhere to hide. Neighbours not only knew each other and their business, but were there in times of trouble, knowing from their own experience what was needed. That is something that must grow organically, born of a shared life; it cannot be imposed by planners, no matter how they try, and I doubt that many of these artificial ‘communities’, built of plasterboard and a desire for quick profit, will stand long enough for communities to evolve into themselves.

Modern society encourages an aspirational lifestyle, where success is measured by possessions. This, in turn, encourages an insularity…an ‘every man for himself’ mentality where all are obliged to compete for the prize of achievement. Communities are shrinking to include just those who come within our own ‘castles’, where we look after our families and close friends. It seems as if is only in times of real trouble that we remember that we are capable of acting together for the greater good. It is then that we see the human spirit come into its own as people open their arms, homes and wallets to help the victims of tragedy. We have to do studies on how to be happy, in which they cite the benefits of kindness and qualities such as forgiveness and gratitude. I am not sure I like the society we are constructing for ourselves…

As we walked around Tremadog, the mists came down, veiling the evening and reminding us just how easy it would be to lose oneself in the heights. Lights shone from houses and the noise of the traffic gave way to the quiet roar of water, falling in ceaseless sound from hills drunk on clouds. A stream flowed down into the town through a man-made culvert, showing how simple it is to invite the natural forces of earth into our lives, preserving their essence, while harnessing their power. We like to think that we have come a long way from those early days when community was tribal and based on the shared need for survival. We are not so very different today, though the terms of our ‘survival’ now wear a different and branded face. Yet it is still those higher qualities of humankind that, in our own estimation, set us apart from the other animals, that touch our hearts and draw from us a true sense of aspiration, a desire to grow into ourselves and be measured by more than what shoes we wear or where we dine.

We wandered back to the Golden Fleece as the light faded. The public bar is a relic of older centuries where the language is Welsh. There is a timeless quality to the melody of voices in conversation. The bar itself is a cave-like affair, originally the wine cellar, and modernisation has created spaces in which to relax. There is really nothing wrong with modernity in itself. Light, colour, cleanliness and comfort… time to spare…. all are easier and more pleasant than the lifestyle that even the original inhabitants of Madocks’ dream would have known. We have come so far and learned so much and yet we seem to be at risk of losing our way. The brighter we burn, the deeper the shadows we will cast and the easier it becomes to lose ourselves within shadows of our own creation. Our needs are natural, our lifestyles artificial… yet somehow we need to find a reconciliation, a balance between the two where our own integrity is maintained. The next morning we would be visiting a place where such a vision had been pursued with a passion…

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: ‘I am not a number’

There were people… two of them… heading towards the Druids Circle… so we wandered over to have a look at the intriguing cluster of stones we could see just over the rise in the land. The trouble with these complex sites is that you would need a whole day on the hills just to see them all, let alone begin to ‘join the dots’, see their relationship to each other in the wider context and begin to make any sense of the landscape. Even in this small area of hilltop, there are several stone circles, cairns, barrows, an ancient stone axe factory and a stone alignment. And then there is this… classified only as ‘Monument 280’ or a ‘stone setting’. No-one seems to know what it is.

So close to the Druids Circle, on a hilltop where the only collections of stones are part of recognised ritual structures, it must have been something and important too. It lies in the area between the main circle and Circle 278, where further cremation burials were found, hidden from sight in a hollow just a few yards over the next rise… but there were limits on our time and that will have to wait for another visit. The four upright stones that run north and south of Monument 280 are about forty feet apart and the tallest stones stand waist high on a man. There is a central area which, when undisturbed, might have formed a circle enclosing an area around fifteen feet across and what looks like a kerb arrangement down one side.  As far as I can find out, it has not yet been excavated.

Who names these things? Numbers do not do them justice, even though there was an obvious correspondence with the Prisoner’ theme that would be running through the Silent Eye event to which we were heading by this circuitous route. And if this is 280, just how many more are in the area? Was it once a covered mound? Has it always stood open to the skies? What aspect of the cycles of the earth or heavens did it mark or align with? There are notches on the peak of Tal-y Ban, not far away and the Holy Isle of Anglesey, Ynys Môn, down below in the bay. I couldn’t help thinking we needed our friend, Running Elk, who had provided such insight at the Raven’s Nest… and with whom we will be exploring the sacred sites of the Don Valley in September. Mind, time was running out, and we would never have left… We still had work to do too taking pictures for the work-in-progress… but, on past experience, only after reassuring the two walkers who were still sitting in the main circle.

Once our work was done, we reluctantly took a last look at the circle and began the long walk back across the hills to where we had left the car, what now seemed like aeons ago. There was a last place to stop, though, just below the circle. We followed the little pipit that hopped across the heather, leading us down and over the stream once more to the romantically named Circle 275. We had taken a reading in the Druids Circle, but saved the shadow reading until we were within the five stones of 275. As Stuart reported, it was more than a little strange to get something quite so appropriate from a reading chosen at random.

We had left crystals; given the huge chunks of quartz that were in evidence at the sites, especially in the row of stones as we headed back, we felt it appropriate. As if we had approval somehow. This time, we followed the right path, avoiding the dodgy wall-climbing and we had not gone far when the farmer we had spoken to earlier pulled up alongside us on his quad bike. He was finishing rounding up the sheep for shearing and looking forward to his tea which, he assured us, would be ready when he got in. And then his nightly tot of whisky. He looked to be in his early sixties.

His face radiated bronze health, a quality more than physical. We talked for a while about the contrast between the beauty of the mountains and the sadder, less green world to which we would have to return. We spoke of how it fed the soul somehow and how, in spite of the climb, we felt rejuvenated by even our short sojourn on his land.”Aye,” he said, “It does alright by me.” He had lived his whole life on the hills with his sheep and his herd of semi-wild horses. “And I’ll be eighty-one next week.” He wished us well and drove off, leaving us with confirmation that here, in the verdant silence, we were in another world.

The going was easier on the way back, not just because it was mostly downhill, but because this time, we knew the way. It is the uncertainty of the destination that makes outward journeys so much harder. Even so, we went up the hill feeling old, tired and…in my case… struggling. We came down with winged souls, alight with what we had seen, touched and felt. As we walked the final long slope down to the car, a flicker of movement caught my eye. The final gift of an and incredible afternoon… across the ravine, hovering over the heather, was a kestrel. Now, all we had to do was drive the fifty miles to meet our companions for the official start of the weekend…

 

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Greeting the Druid…

You could not wish for a more spectacular setting for a stone circle. Perched high above the sea, with views to distant mountains in every other direction, it is  a magnificent site. A slight rise to the seaward side blocks the view of the modern quarrying and, from within the circle, there  is no visible trace of the modern world at all.

It is easy, here, to rebuild in imagination the fallen stones. There were once thirty of them standing, now only eleven remain upright. Even so, they have a presence impossible to capture on camera. It is a place to simply sit in wonder. To sit and wonder too what our forebears were thinking when they quarried Penmaen-mawr in the 1920s, decapitating the 1500 ft  summit by the simple expedient of destroying Braich-y-Dinas, the Iron Age hillfort that crowned it… which was one of the largest in Europe. No trace of the hillfort now remains… but looking around the area, it is evident that the stone circle was not a solitary feature, but part of a much larger complex.

The circle itself has been dated by some to the Bronze Age around 1500 BC, by others, including Burl, to around five thousand years ago. It scarcely seems to matter.  The circle, around eighty feet wide, sits upon a rubble base within a raised embankment. It is not a true circle, being flattened on one edge as if to avoid the ancient trackways that cross close by. I am not at all certain that is the reason… there is more than enough space to build a full circle had that been required, without encroaching on the tracks. Alexander Thom and Robin Heath, two of the most interesting people to read on the subject, have posited that there were mathematical and astronomical reasons for the shape. ( You can find a very informative article on flattened circles here.)

The circle is entered through a four-stone portal, but as you approach from below, one of the stones draws your attention straight away. It is known as the Stone of Sacrifice, for the hollowed bowl at its head. During excavations at the site during the 1950s, a fine burial cyst was found, scattered around with stones and quartz crystals. Within the chamber was a food vessel containing the cremated bones of a child ages between ten and twelve. Another cyst contained a similar burial of a child a couple of years older, buried with a riveted bronze knife. This has led to tales of child sacrifice at the site… yet no sign of sacrificial offerings has been found.

We visit ancient sites whenever we can. Child burials seem to be a common feature at many of them and all of them seem to be carefully buried, often with precious objects and in decorated urns. That would seem to imply that they were buried, with love and respect, in the most sacred of places. If there were child sacrifices, it would seem that this was both rare and honourable within their culture. While it appears abhorrent to modern thought, human sacrifice was a feature of many early cultures. For the most part, it was not originally seen as a thing of terror, but a gift to the gods of the most precious thing the clans could give… life. As there is no evidence of sacrifice at the circle, though, it seems more likely that these children were placed there either through love or perhaps to mark a belief in the cyclical nature of life. Were they affirming, by their presence, a belief in rebirth drawn from the seasonal changes and renewal of the land itself? Were they placed there as messengers to the gods? We may never know. Curiously though, a local tradition says that should a newborn baby be placed within the hollow of the Stone of Sacrifice, it will be granted a long and lucky life.

But it was the Druid we had come to see. And he was unmistakable. The robed and hooded figure watched as we approached as he has watched for five thousand years…which means that he was never a Druid. That is a Victorian misnomer, as the circle predates the Druids as we know them by millennia. But it begs the question of where the Druids began…not,perhaps, by that name, but by their function as the wisdom-keepers of the people. Modern man sets great store by its labels and titles, delineating, defining and confining each section of society by their position, mores, or beliefs. I do not believe that such labels matter… but function does.

Those who served the gods on behalf of a community were its priests long before the word was ever dreamed of. Our legends and myths abound with tales of bards, wizards, shamanic practices, wisdom that seems to come from the dawn of time and priestly, magical, mystical figures… all of which are  united in the archetypal figure of Merlin. There may never have been Druids at Meini Hirion, now known as the Druids Circle, but those who cared for the people here served the same Purpose, regardless of the rites they used or the Names of those they served.

I think there are lessons to be learned from the old places. Not just to understand what they did, how and why, but lessons of judgement and our own approach to spirit.  We tend to think of our most distant ancestors as primitive, but it takes very little to realise the complexity of what they achieved. You need only look at the astronomical and calendrical correspondences of the circles, let alone the mathematics, to see that the stones were not randomly placed, but show an incredible sophistication… one that we recognise in the construction methods of Egypt, familiar to our eyes with their walls and decoration, but deny or dismiss as crude within the old places of Britain. They may not have constructed their monuments with theodolite or laser measures; their knowledge may have been instinctive, intuitive, observational, rather than formal… but they were certainly more in tune with their surroundings than we are today.

When you stand in these places, you cannot help but feel that they recognised that their place within existence was tenuous and dependent upon  a respect for the natural rhythm of life. As you watch the ever-shifting light upon the heights, where clouds cast their shadows and swallow mountains, you feel close to the Source. It feels more fitting to lift the eyes to heaven beneath the sky than within the vaults of a cathedral; the green earth a more potent symbol for our roots and spiritual aspiration than the chequer board of a temple floor. The circle, an unarguable symbol of the Infinite.

We sat for a while, simply absorbing the atmosphere of the place. My companion had been once before with others, many years earlier. He spoke of the strong reactions they had to the place… some quite negative. The spirit of place is certainly strong, but we found it to be one of utter peace. A powerful but happy place. The birds, butterflies and bees seemed to think so too and accepted us as part of it… one going so far as to land on my hand and wander around for a few minutes before finally settling on the amber of my ring. A Green Man, his face crafted by Nature from lichen and stone, seemed to smile.

There was so much more to see…and we would not have time for all of it. The world below was calling. We would have to come back to explore the ancient axe ‘factories’ at Cwm Graiglwyd, where, five thousand years ago stone axes were crafted, so prized that they were traded across the whole land, just as those of the Lake District were traded. The craftsmanship was laborious and the heavy axes seem to have been more for ritual use than practical purposes. There would be no time to search for any of the many prehistoric sites that we knew were close by. But there was a least one we did not need to search for… tantalising stones called from just beyond the next rise…