The space under the stairs…

Image: Pixabay

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…

Image: Pixabay

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…


The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Ascent

‘The prophet takes over where the mystic stops. The mystic is ascent; the prophet descent.’

– William Everson

The bibliomantic reading could not have been more appropriate. From the mines, we were heading for the heights to meet a Druid on the top of a mountain.
“I’m not sure I’m really up to climbing mountains….” Between the mountain that loomed above us, the sun and the heat, the word ‘convalescence’ seemed to be at a bit of a loss for something to connect with. I had heard the tale of the day-long wander around the mountain on a spiral path that had led to my companion’s original ‘discovery’ of the site.
“That must have been the wrong way. The book…” Ah, the book… the same one that had led us on so many wild goose chases with its maps drawn to some variable scale? “… the book says it is only a half hour and fair walking.” I was reassured. But not for long. “It’ll be fine…”

At least we got to drive part of the way, up increasing tortuous lanes where the hedgerows brushed the sides of the car, pausing in our ascent to allow a confused baby rabbit to seek shelter.The book said to park at the pillars.
“Do you think they constitute pillars?” My companion nodded towards the twin shafts of stone either side of a particularly narrow stretch.
“I thought you’d been here before?”
“‘I have no memory of this place…'”
I kept driving.

We eventually found the pillars and parked the car. After our visit to the ancient mines, the morning was already arcing towards noon and, by the time we had fuelled ourselves for the ascent with sandwiches, the sun was at its zenith. The heatwave had officially begun. But still, a gentle, half-hour walk should be no problem. I looked out along the invitation of the soft, green path with anticipation.
“It’s up there.” My companion pointed the other way to where a broken track climbed steeply up the face of the mountain. Oh well. The sun was shining, the clouds were low and intimate… and there was already a first flush of heather tinting the hillside. A ‘fair’ walk. How hard could it be?

The path climbed steeply. I was wheezing before we’d gone ten yards. I stopped every ten yards or so to get my breath, feeling as old as Methuselah and as unfit as he would be after a century on a diet of Big Macs. My companion was better…but not much. We agreed it would be silly to attempt this kind of thing without knowing it was not very far. The path kept on climbing. I kept on stopping… until we crested the first slope. The views were stunning. There was heather and stone and horizons and sea and mountains… and while my companion paused to consult the book to see which of the three paths we should take, I skipped off ahead, as ecstatic a spring lamb.

But the path continued, curling around the corner of the hill. No sign of our Druid. The silence was absolute. No sound at all other than the distant bleat of a lamb or the call of a bird. No sign of ‘civilisation’, no other person in sight for miles… Just a high green plateau surrounded by hills and dotted with pure white sheep and the small birds that once again led us onwards.

We must have been walking for half an hour before we spotted a huge boulder in a distant field and what appeared to be the remnants of a stone circle off to our left.
“I remember seeing four stones from the site…” But there was still no sign of our destination. We left the main track to explore the four stones and continued past them to where we would get a clearer view, both of the area and the sea below. The car, by now, was an impossibly tiny speck in the distance, far beneath us and far away. There was no trace our our destination and we realised we had lost the trail. It was at this moment that a Landrover came across the field and the farmer stopped to speak to us.

Expecting to be told that we were trespassing, we were a tad apprehensive, but the gentleman merely passed the time of day and, asking where we were heading, offered directions.
“Back to the main path and follow it up. It isn’t far. You’re nearly there.” His tanned face broke into a grin. “You can’t miss it…”
That’s never a good sign…

When he had driven off, we followed his direction, passing beneath an outcrop of rock that looked like a dragon’s spine. Beneath our feet there were bones, lots of bones, as if the harsh winter of the high places had demanded sacrifice. My companion, who had wandered off, held up his find.
“Dragon’s teeth!” He held out a set of winter-white vertebrae.
“The dragon’s spine!”
“Well, they are too big for sheep…”
“Horse?” The long-bones at out feet suggested as much, and a herd of the semi-wild Welsh ponies grazed on a nearby hill, their foals as curious as the lambs.

We regained the original path and walked on, and up…and on…and up. Not only was there no sign of our destination, but there was no sign of any exit from the field when the path ran out. Just a dry stone wall topped with barbed wire.
If it is not at the top of this rise, we’ll have to make a decision…”
The clock said we were running seriously low on time. We were to meet the others for the start of the weekend workshop at half past five and we still had a fifty mile drive ahead of us. We walked on.
“It it is not at the top of this rise, we are going to have to turn back.”

We reached the top of the field.
“We may as well just check over the wall. It would be awful to come all this way and miss it by a few yards…”
We made our escape from the field; my longer-legged companion over the wall, me, with little grace and less dignity, through the nettles and over the rusted gate behind an ancient sheep fold.
“We’ll just go to the top of that rise…” The land seemed to open out there. If there was nothing in view, we would have to call it a day.

A huge monolith lay flat in the grass, surrounded by smaller boulders, looking for all the world like the one carried by Obelix in the Asterix books.
“It looks as if it should be standing…”
“And there is a stone row pointing that way…”
With no idea whether the stones had been placed there in antiquity or not, we accepted their guidance and followed where they led.

As the vista opened before us, showing us the sea below, the green of the hills stood in stark and unpleasant contrast to the slate mining operation on the mountain overlooking the bay. After the wonder of the ancient mines that morning, the dark scar on the hillside, amid so much beauty, was painful and somehow abrupt. Although it provides much-needed employment and revenue for the area, up here such considerations seemed remote, as if the land itself was telling us its sorrow.

“I can see it!”
We paused to gather ourselves for the final ascent, picking out the infinitesimal spot of green that was the car, seemingly miles away, beneath the heather-dark slopes of a distant hill far below. Although we enjoy walking, that is not the idea behind these weekends nor was the long, uphill trek something we would have attempted had we known what was entailed, at least not on suc a hot day and with limited time. But the book had been right. It was a ‘fair’ walk… if you take fair to mean beautiful. Bathing in that sunlit beauty, I felt better than I had in months and younger than I had in years. The body knows what it needs, even when the mind thinks it mad.

We headed for the horizon and the tantalising glimpse of stone crowing the rise. It had been far more than half an hour’s walk… We squelched through the marshy grass and reeds, crossed the stream on a convenient log and climbed the final slope to Meini Hirion, the ‘long stones’, known in English as The Druid’s Circle…

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Descent

The trouble with awe-inspiring landscapes is that the camera can never do them justice. It is not merely a matter of scale, depth and perspective… the lens can capture all the details accurately. It can hold a frozen moment of beauty forever. But it will seldom take your breath away in that indefinable manner that ‘being there’ in the presence of wonder will do.

We had seen the little museum and gained a reasonable understanding of the science and archaeology. We had even watched the introductory film. We were both open-mouthed when we actually stood in the presence of the entrance to the mines. It is hard to explain why. It is not just the sheer scale of the workings, nor is it knowing that the mines were created four thousand years ago with antler picks and stone hammers. It is nothing to do with knowing how many miles of tunnel have been discovered so far, or the complexity of the smelting process by which the green, copper-rich malachite was turned into metal. It is not even marvelling at the level of technology that took the Stone Age into the Bronze Age.

The nearest I can come to describing the feeling is to say that walking out into the morning and seeing the mines spreading out below,  feels very similar to walking into one of the great Gothic cathedrals. There is that same sense of awe and wonder. The same feeling that here the hand of Man reached out to something he saw as divine and was touched in return by Its essence.

That probably does not sound as if it makes any sense. We think of mines as commercial ventures…dark, dirty airless places,  or the horrendous open-cast affairs that rape and destroy mountainsides, leaving ugly scars and irreparable damage. These mines felt ‘other’ than that. They were not divorced from Nature, but part of it, colonised by flowers and lichens, birds, horseshoe bats and many small, busy creatures.  The earth seemed not so much plundered as harvested.

As we entered the narrow passageway of the entrance, we were entering a sacred place. If the earth is seen as the body of the Mother, then we were walking through her veins. The precious minerals, mined with such diligence by our ancestors might, perhaps, be part of her central nervous system; crystals are used for communication even in our own uber-technical age after all. I wondered about that and remembered a valley full of crystal where the idea of communication-by-minerals had first come to mind, feeling as though we were almost on the edge of understanding something…

We had the place almost to ourselves as we squeezed through narrow passageways, making the inevitable comparisons with the process of birth. On each side, there were glimpses into other tunnels, so narrow that only small children could have mined them. That is an odd thought for the modern mind, yet the children must have worked alongside their parents in the flickering shadows cast by the tallow candles. The mines were part of the community and, although the work would have been dark and dangerous, there is no lingering whisper of distress in the stone.

Stalactites in one of the unopened caverns. Image from information board

Beneath our feet, grilles were windows into even lower levels. Much of the mine is still closed to the public, but nine levels of tunnels descend 220 feet into the earth and over five miles of tunnels have been found, created over a period of a thousand years. It was not only malachite ore that was mined; the green stone is well known today as a semi-precious gem and is still used in jewellery. Once it was finely ground and used as  a pigment in ancient cosmetics and paint, but here the main focus was for the making of bronze. Blue azurite, gold chalcopyrite and even native copper were extracted as well as the malachite.

Those with an interest in the healing properties of crystals will already be wondering about that cocktail of minerals and what it must have been like to spend one’s life within a cocoon of them. Balancing, enhancing, positive stones all of them… their meanings well worth researching for those who choose to delve further into the idea. If our ancestors, so intimate with stone, were sensitive to such energies, they must have truly felt the embrace of the Mother keeping them safe within her womb.

On every wall you can see the marks made by the tools and hands of those who carved the caverns from virgin stone. Antler picks, four thousand years old, have left their traces and bring their wielders close as you walk through the tunnels. In places, ancient walls block older tunnels, still holding their secrets and waiting to be explored. Then, you turn a narrow corner and find a window on wonder.

I am not a fan of coloured lighting in caves, but here, the cycling colours were a perfect way to highlight the level upon level of excavation in the most astonishing cavern. It is one of the largest prehistoric, man-made caverns in the world, carved out only with antlers and stone tools. When it was first rediscovered in 1987, there was only space to crawl into the cavern; it had been backfilled with rubble. It took the team five years to reveal the full extent of the space and the multitude of levels that honeycomb the walls, leading into the central cavern. Layer upon layer of workings, both higher and lower than you can see… it is an utterly incredible sight!

We had to go back and see it twice, waiting till a couple had passed before testing the acoustics and taking a reading. It is not just mind-blowingly huge, it is also beautiful and feels somehow full of life, with shadows casting faces from every angle in the shifting light. And no matter how many pictures we took, we would not capture even a fragment of its presence.

Outside, the story was the same. What should have seemed like a damaged landscape had a ‘rightness’ that spoke of a respect and a harmony with the earth that we have lost with industrialisation. Although it could well have been an alien landscape, perhaps it is we who have alienated ourselves.

On the surface, there are the usual information points. A smelting shed shows how the bronze was made… not really something that could have simply been discovered by the accidental burning of a piece of malachite as one gentleman we passed was suggesting.  On the other hand, there is an area that demonstrates how flames can weaken stone, making it friable and easier to mine.

At one point the path leads you above the 470 ft deep Vivian’s Shaft, dropping straight down into the earth. It was when the landscaping project was first proposed that local enthusiasts decided to explore what was thought to be merely an old Roman mine worked by the Victorians. Deep within the shaft they found bones and stone tools that would carbon-date the mines and alter history.

Both above ground and below there are a bewildering number of entrances and passageways, promising many more discoveries. The lease for the  mines were purchased by four passionate local people who continue to protect, explore and uncover one of the most amazing prehistoric sites I have ever seen. Not just for the sheer physical endeavor that the site represents, but for the sense of place and purpose. If you get chance, it is more than worth as visit. As for us, we were leaving the womb of the earth to head for the hills and a meeting with a druid…