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.
“Oooh…”

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.

But…
“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…

Going west – walking with angels

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We didn’t have to climb the whole height of the mountain; there is a makeshift car park about halfway up. I was glad of that, as my poor, much abused feet were not happy. I spend much of my life barefoot, the soles of my feet offer better protection than most of my shoes these days and anyway, I like to feel the earth beneath my feet. Left to my own devices, I would have walked in the flimsy lace slippers that allow them to breathe and expand, but common sense demanded the walking shoes be worn. It would be a long way to carry an idiot with a twisted ankle back down the mountain and we had been warned of a scramble over loose scree at the top.

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Walking shoes come into their own in rain and winter weather…or when crossing the boggy stretches of moorland born of upland springs that bar your way, even when it hasn’t rained for weeks. Their soles are thick and rigid with excellent grip, their uppers breathable, their construction protective and waterproof and they hug the feet securely. They are faultless and comfortable… except when it is already hot and said feet are gasping for air and threatening to go on all-out strike if not given worker’s rights.

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Just to add insult to injury, as soon as my feet overheat at present, the pain and the itching of the spider bites returns. Consequently, my ascent of the mountain was slow, punctuated by muttered expletives and lacked the grace of the supercilious sheep and the ponies that watched our progress. They, I noted, had surrendered to the heat of the day and were comfortably lying on the grass.

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It is one of the inevitabilities of the ageing process that the body starts to impose limitations long before the inner self has begun to slow down. I am not sure that we ever have to leave our youthful eagerness and joy in life behind… but the consequences of the lives we have lived etch themselves on muscle and bone. Growing older is a privilege that should be appreciated for the gift it is…and one we would probably appreciate more often if it didn’t hurt so much.

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Sometimes, though, a slower pace is not such a bad thing. A leisurely stroll with frequent stops gives plenty of time to observe the land and its creatures, and this landscape was certainly worth more time than we would have. You could probably spend a lifetime on the mountain and still not learn all its secrets. Sometimes, too, that slower pace has unseen reasons that shadow forth a purpose other than our own. Without the aching feet, I would have missed something that will remain with me for a very long time.

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St Brynach, a local saint of the 6thC, is said to have climbed Mynydd Carningli many times,  when the busy life at the monastery he founded in Nevern became too much for him. He would walk to the summit to pray in the silence, surrounded by the beauty of his God’s Creation and ‘commune with the angels’.

Carningli_hillfort map by Brian John
                      Map of Carningli hillfort by Brian John, who set the hill at the heart of his books.

Mynydd Carningli, the ‘Hill of the Angels’, is an ancient volcano that rises some 1,138 feet above the sea and its origins are written in its stone. It is part of the Prescelli range of hills from which the famous Bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried and carried  some 140 miles to their home at the heart of the Hanging Stones. It appears to have been a sacred place for much of mankind’s history and is rich in archaeology. There would be no time to explore the massive hillfort that crowns the mountain and which goes back to the Bronze Age, or to go searching for the hut circles, gateways and revetments that make this such a fascinating, as well as such a beautiful place. We were climbing for other reasons.

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I wasn’t the only one struggling with the ascent that day. The fittest amongst us were way ahead of us, stopping occasionally to allow us to catch up for a while. The laggard group fell further and further behind and one of our Companions, already beyond his usual limits, started looking for another path back down.

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I could sympathise, but was determined to make the top. Our guide for the weekend was taking us to places that spoke to her heart and soul in words of silent beauty. They meant something to her, far beyond their undoubted historical or aesthetic value. In sharing them with us, she was opening a door through which we could see a glimmer of her own inner light. That level of trust a  thing of great beauty in itself.

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And there was another reason too… we planned on a sharing a healing meditation there for a much-loved friend whose health was giving cause for concern. I voiced this, as much to affirm my own determination as for any other reason and witnessed what was, for me, the most singularly beautiful moment of the whole weekend. “I needed to hear that right now,” said our weary Companion, straightening his back and striding on up the mountain. What he might not have attempted for himself he would do for Love.

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You have to climb to reach any summit, just as you have to travel to reach any destination. That journey is not only part of the experience, but gives value to its attainment. Stuart has a theory that the effort of the ascent is the willing sacrifice we make when we climb these sacred hills and what may be granted in return is exponential to the offering of self that you have made. Watching that determined back precede me up the mountain is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It is in such moments that you glimpse the true strength and beauty of the human heart and soul.

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