Going west – Pentre Ifan

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It is a magical place. You are in no doubt of that as you walk along the path to the site. Hoary stones nestle in the hedgerow. Bluebells, those delicate woodland flowers that bloom only in spring, are blooming on the hillside at midsummer, scattered through the grass as if giving warning that here, time holds no sway and to step into the enclosure is to step out of this world’s realm and into another.

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Your first sight of Pentre Ifan takes your breath away. I saw it many years ago, on a day that invited no other visitors… we had the place to ourselves for hours and time to get a feel for this sacred space. And, although many things here may be debated and pondered upon by minds scientific or spiritually inclined, there is no doubt about its sanctity.

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It is the gigantic head of a bird that greets you, its beak held aloft by stone as insubstantial as a feather, looking out over the valley. Here, it is not just the stones that ‘get’ you. It is the place itself. Little wonder, when there are so many tales of the Fair Folk being sighted here, especially as the moon rises on a summer night.

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Some tales tell that they are red-capped and resemble small soldiers. Others, less forthcoming but more believable, speak of insubstantial beings, impossible to capture but who converse with those rare few who can see them.

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It was built around six thousand years ago and is the oldest of those we visited on this trip. The site sits within its enclosure still, even though the stones are largely lost within the edges of the oak wood and the hedgerows, the shape of the space can still be traced. There are all the usual debates over the purpose and construction of the site, and it is always referred to as a tomb. Here, I can see that, though not because of the archaeology. Very few finds have been discovered here and nothing to show that it was ever a burial chamber, which, in itself, seems a little odd for a tomb.  I wonder if it was part of the death rites, rather than a final resting place?  Or perhaps the death was more symbolic…a ritual initiation …a re-beginning…for the shamans.

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One legend about the place says that it was a druidic college.  Pentre Ifan was not always its name either… it was once known as Arthur’s Quoit, Coetan Arthur, like the first site we had visited. Arthur, as a legend, is a mere babe compared to the age of these stones, and I wonder why the warrior-king who sought the Grail was associated with them. Perhaps folk memory remembered something we have now lost and saw in these stones a portal to a different mode of being.

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A recent CGI reconstruction of the site by CADW inadvertently confirms my avian impression. My first thought when I came across it a couple of years ago was that the stone cladding of the mound that enclosed the stones and the sunken chamber that once lay within, looked remarkably like the hooded wings of our red kites  Thus, if the reconstruction is anywhere near correct, the Old Ones were enfolding those within in the protective wings of a great bird that turned its head back to watch the approach from the lowlands.

It seems almost irrelevant to give facts and figures about this place. The capstone is over 16 feet long and weighs around 17 tonnes. It is held on three orthostats, some 8 feet above the ground as it now stands; the sunken chamber would have made the distance even greater. It appears that the earliest structure on the site was an oval cairn flanked by dry stone walls. Later it was extended and became a long barrow around 130 feet long.

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The central stone of the portal may have been the blocking stone for the final form of the tomb, or it may have originally been a standing stone on its own. Within the chamber was a felled stone, deliberately left, with traces of burning and older stone-holes. Eventually, a semi circular forecourt was created beyond the wider end of the capstone, which is blocked, but not supported by, the central monolith… a stone that looks remarkably like something I painted several years ago.

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The top of the capstone slopes down towards the valley, as does the peak of Carningli that forms the western horizon of this remarkable site. But it is not the size, or the shape that is the overriding impression that seeing these stones makes upon you. It is not even the fact that, as Robin Heath points out in his book Bluestone Magic, Pentre Ifan, with Llech y Drybedd and Bardsey Island, form a precise north-south alignment that goes a long way to establishing the credentials of the long-distance surveying in which our ancestors were engaged.

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No, it is the elegance of the stones themselves.  Their delicacy and poise. The fact that the great capstone is held by nothing more than three needle-points of stone… that have held  it thus for millennia. Seventeen tonnes of stone that appear to hover above the ground, as lightly as a feather on the breeze, carried on slender shards with a precision that is simply stunning.

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If the CGI interpretation is anything like accurate, all this would have been buried under tonnes of earth. No one would have seen it. Is this, then, on a par with the sumptuous wall paintings of Egyptian tombs? A last gift to the dead?  Or maybe the stones were never covered at all? Or is it because they believed that those within saw with an otherworldly sight?

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The elegant poise of the stones is a confident expression of both skill and beauty. The false fragility of Pentre Ifan makes the earlier sites we had seen look like country cousins… heavier, cruder of construction, though not less powerful for that. It is as if the ancient ones tried their hands at the other sites before attaining perfection here…yet of the ones we had seen, Pentre Ifan is the oldest. Perhaps, then, this is the cathedral, built to show where the seat of power lies and the others are the parish churches where the ordinary folk do the real work of living and dying; simpler, but always full of life. But there is something about the place… something I would like to sit with in the silence and listen to on the wind. Perhaps it is that feeling that has given rise to the tales of the Fair Folk.

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For the third and final time, our company gathered beneath the capstone and shared the Gorsedd Prayer. This time, we were granted the gift of hearing it read in Welsh and in that language it took on its true form, as if, like the stones, what we had known on the outside was only a pale reflection of its inner soul… a soul we were privileged to be touched by as it shone for a moment in the midsummer sun. We had not enough time to spend there, but we had enough. As we had arrived, a party was leaving the stones. As we left, another party arrived. It is often the way… as if by finding space for Spirit, It creates a space for us. That too is a gift.

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Going west – and getting lost

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Our little convoy left the ancient site playing follow-the-leader on the narrow roads. The car in front of me had instructions, in case we lost the lead car, on how to get to the car park for a quick comfort break before the next stop of the weekend. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for a start there was the traffic that separated the party. Then a sign for a car park saved the day. Except, when we nearly got there, it didn’t seem to match the instructions. Off we all went looking for the right car park… to no avail. So we went back to the first one. Which was nice and had the necessary facilities, besides being right on the beach…

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We tried calling, but there was no answer. We decided that the best course of action would be to stay put and wait for rescue. A decision not in the least bit influenced by the beautiful location… or the jam-and-cream scones with large pots of tea with which we were fortifying ourselves when our guide arrived. We must have looked like naughty children when she found us… the look on her face is one my own has worn all too often when catching my sons in mischief. I’m not at all sure she was convinced of our innocence… and faced with a table full of scones and clotted cream, I can’t say I blame her. I’m not sure I would have believed us either.

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Still I was glad to see a little more of the place, if only accidentally. There are some beautiful old buildings in Newport, including parts of the Norman castle and a church of the same date with some interesting stained glass that there would be no time to visit on this trip at least. There are the earthworks and trenches of an Iron Age fort, built on a prehistoric site that dates back some nine thousand years to the mesolithic area, as well as more recent history, such as the disused lime kilns beside the car park of the little port where we had found ourselves.

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That is the only problem with running a weekend workshop… inevitably you end up missing so many things in an area. Time only allows you so much leeway and choices must be made about where to go and what to do… and yet you still have to leave space for spirit, time to just be in the landscape… and for such eventualities as accidental cream teas. The places we has seen and were yet to see were perfectly chosen and all places we really wanted to see. Still, it does give us an excuse to go back… not that we are likely to need one. Wales is a beautiful country and rich in history and ancient sites.

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Even the land itself would be reason enough to return. Somehow, you can feel both its age and its life. Watched by the creature that seemed to smile on us from the headland, we all took directions from our guide and set off for the short drive to our next stop. We needn’t have worried… ‘up’ was the only direction we really needed. We had a hill to climb…

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Going west – Carreg Coetan Arthur

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This was the third dolmen we had visited in three days whose name tied it to the legendary King Arthur…and three times three is a magical number. It is certainly a magical site and quite unexpected as you walk between the gaily painted bungalows of the little coastal town of Newport.  A gate opens into a green oasis, bounded and shadowed by high hedges, cool in the midday sun, where you come face to face with the oddest little dolmen. My first thought was just as odd…that it reminded me of Ani, the way she sits with the front paws together, demure and expectant, yet somehow regal and ready to pounce in joyous abandon… there was that kind of ‘feel’ to the place.  Very much alive.

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Like most of these sites that were once houses of the dead, the overriding impression is not one of melancholy, but of warmth and gladness. You can understand it on a bright, summer’s day, but I don’t know why it should be so in the depths of winter or in pouring rain…yet so it is. There is no sense of the macabre in walking where the bones of our ancestors once lay, no sadness or ghoulish tremor; just a sense of gentle peace and reverence, which says more about our ancestors’ attitude to death, perhaps, than anything we might deduce from the formal study of the past. It is as if they already knew that Life cannot die…only the forms that hold it for a short while can fade and pass, returning their elements to the earth to fuel the cycle of becoming.

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We don’t really know how old these sites are. The scientific process of dating them takes into account both the style and method of construction, comparing them to other dated sites, along with any artefacts that are found during excavation. Anything that can be used for radiocarbon dating, or one of the other modern methods, is a bonus. Even so, such methods can only tell when the artefact dates from, not the site itself, unless its position allows archaeologists to deduce that the find must have been in place before a site was built over it. There have been finds of bone, Grooved and Beaker ware on a platform beside the cromlech and there are other, smaller boulders half buried, part of an unknown construction. Carreg Coetan Arthur has been dated to around 4,700 years old. The nature of the finds suggest that bodies were never buried here, but that only defleshed bones were brought to the site.

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We call them tombs, yet I have to wonder if our modern definition really fits the use for which they were designed. That bones were laid in such places, there is no doubt…many have been found, mainly longbones and skulls, neatly arranged by type rather than by person. The bones of many individuals, over decades and centuries, laid in places that seem also to have been used for the rituals that sustain life. To the modern mind, life and death are to be kept separate and our tombs a place to bury the past, not include it in our celebrations. I prefer the older view, that recognises what has gone before as a necessary part of what is.

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 The first impression of the cromlech is that it is small compared to many others, but that is due rather to the design than the stones themselves. The capstone, deep and bulky, is over thirteen feet long and even now I could walk underneath it. The internal space was once much higher. Centuries of local ploughing raised the ground level considerably and the uprights would have once stood around three feet higher than they do today, creating a tall and elegant form. Even so, to see the great capstone poised upon the uprights is impressive enough. Especially when, on closer inspection, you realise that it is not balanced upon the four uprights at all… but is held, incredibly, upon the points of only two. Wales 040

The two supporting orthostats sit beautifully into deliberately hollowed niches in the capstone. Can you imagine the mastery required to enable such a weight of stone to be so perfectly  balanced? The surrounding countryside is now largely obscured by modern buildings, but the contours  of the capstone are said to shadow the contours of nearby Mynydd Carningli, which we were set to climb that afternoon. Not only that, but the site marks the point from which some interesting and precise solar and lunar alignments have been noted, for both midwinter and midsummer. Such precision cannot be accidental and suggests a sophistication in the observation and reproduction of cosmic cycles that we recognise in the superlative artistry of Egypt yet often overlook in the earthier but powerful presence of stone in our own landscape.

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For the second time we gathered beneath the capstone to share the words of the Gorsedd Prayer, honouring what has gone before, what is and what is yet to come. The human story is but a drop in the ocean of universal time, but it is our story, from beginning to end and the further back we reach through our history, the more we see the commonalities, rather than the differences and barriers we have created between ourselves. Perhaps by looking into the past, we may learn how to face our future.

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Going west – Carreg Samson

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The jaws had dropped, the expletives had escaped and the cameras were out almost as soon as we exited the car. Even from a distance, Carreg Samson was spectacular, set against the backdrop of the coast… a smiling dragon resting his maw on folded wings as if he was casually looking over the cliff top at the approaching party. We should have expected dragons in Wales, but we could never have expected this.

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Even at close quarters, the resemblance remained. We had dutifully noted that, from the correct approach, the contours of the great head seemed to shadow the shape of the headland beyond. The location alone is stunning and the stones are simply enormous. The capstone is over fifteen feet long, nearly nine feet wide and over three feet thick. There is plenty of headroom to stand beneath it. When you consider that the legends say that St Samson lifted the capstone into position with his little finger, you can only imagine that the Welsh saint had been well named.

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Whether through soil subsidence over the five thousand years since it was built or, more likely by design, the capstone is only supported by three of the six remaining orthostats. The stones are different in colour and texture, the supporting stones rich with veins of quartz… and stone was the technology and the artistry of the builders, I doubt that they would make such choices without reason. There are several outliers still half hidden in the grass.

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Excavations showed that there were once four more stones… one support and three that may have formed a passage into the tomb from the southeast. They also found that the tomb was built over a deep, rubble-filled pit. Burnt bone, sherds of pottery and worked flints were also found. Like Coetan Arthur, there is debate over whether or not this tomb ever wore an earthen mound. Be that as it may, at some point in its history, local shepherds had used loose stone to block the gaps in the walls and had used the tomb as a sheep shelter. I wonder what the dragon had thought about that… I have never imagined dragons as herbivores. Even from the other side, the head neck and serene smile are visible.

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We gathered in the chamber of a place once held sacred by our ancestors and, for the first time, shared a version of the Gorsedd Prayer, composed by Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826), that has been adopted by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids:

Grant, O God, Thy protection;
And in protection, strength;
And in strength, understanding;
And in understanding, knowledge;
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it;
And in that love, the love of all life;
And in the love of all life, the love of God.

God and all goodness.

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It mattered not at all by what name or with what vision we each turned our thoughts to the One. We stood on sacred ground, though the names and faces of its gods are lost beyond time. Both faith and belief are personal, unique to each individual, regardless of any religious affiliation. Every prayer that is offered, in praise, thanks or supplication, flies on its own wings.

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With the cameras and the laughter, a casual observer could have been forgiven for putting us down as a just another group of tourists. There is no need for robes, arcane symbols or chanting… okay, sometimes we chant. And wear robes. And symbolism is everywhere anyway. But the heart of a spiritual weekend is in the sacred intent of those who are gathered, not in its outward expression or in pseudo-spiritual posturing.  It is not by the overt and visible form that the inner intent can be measured, nor can it be dismissed as absent when it is veiled by mundane normality. In the quiet spaces between breaths, when a few come together and turn their thoughts to the One, sometimes that intent can be seen,  just for a moment, as beautiful and as tangible as a flower.

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Going west – wild things

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As we walked towards Carn Llidi, we were surprised to see a little herd of Welsh ponies grazing on the hillside. These hardy and resilient ponies still live a semi-feral life here. They are beautiful creatures and very much a part of the land and its history, having ploughed its fields, carried its warriors and worked in its mines for centuries. It is known that there have been ponies here for well over three and a half thousand years…and who knows how much longer before that. At some point in their long history they were bred with Arabian horses and that bloodline too runs in their veins. I knew of the wild ponies of Snowdonia, a genetically unique group that was decimated in recent years by severe winter weather that wiped out almost half the population, but had not expected to see them at St David’s Head.

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I remember seeing the news story when the last pit ponies were brought up from the mines. Smaller breeds, like Shetlands and the Welsh ponies were preferred as they could go where even mechanisation could not, each hauling 30 tons of coal a day in eight-hour shifts. Ponies were used in the mines from 1750, and the last pit pony was retired only in 1999. I remember too my great-uncle’s stories of them and how they worked underground for years, though some were brought up for a short holiday annually when the mines closed. When they came out into the sunlight, they could not see… after so long in the dark it took them some time to adjust to the daylight. The ponies would be taken underground at four years old and could work, if they survived, until their twenties. In deep shaft mines, they were stabled in the mine itself and cared for by the miners as well as their owners. The management were looking after an asset… the miners for a fellow worker who shared both their labour and the danger. Even in modern times, coal mining was deadly work and there were many stories of how the ponies’ sense of danger helped save their human partners.

My great-uncle took me to meet some of the ponies one day during their annual break. He taught me, a small girl then, how to hold out the apples and the mints that they loved without risking my fingers. To see them grazing, wild in the heather, is a very different thing from seeing their coal-stained coats that no amount of grooming could clean… just like my uncle’s hands. Those, I remember well, large, shapely hands, calloused and strong, yet always tinged with black. The coal dust killed him in the end… a lifetime of breathing it unprotected, just as it must have affected so many of the ponies. It was an unnatural life, away from the fresh air and sunlight, away from the green… and a joy to see them free on the hillside as we climbed.

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The ponies were not the only wild beauties there. The exuberance of summer wildflowers alone was quite something to see. Many of them grow low to the ground in response to the coastal wind and weather… you do not see them from afar, but honeysuckle and wild rose ramble through the gorse and bracken. Tall spires of foxglove stand proud above the greenery and with every step new flowers turned multicoloured  faces to the sun.

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The sun was really beating down and we were all glad when the path reached its crest and began to descend ahead of us. We were hot and  tired…we had all driven a long way that day… and, not realising how hot it would get or the scope of the landscape, few of us had brought water. At a fork in the path, we should have ascended further, climbing Carn Llidi to the WWII gun emplacements and the twin chambered tombs on the slopes of the hill before climbing to the top. With some regret we went down instead… all but one of us, who climbed the hill alone. Much as I would have liked to see the tombs, my feet…clad, for once, in sensible walking shoes… were painfully protesting the heat and the abuse of the previous weeks. The shoes had to go…but first, we had to get down.

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The stone walls between which we walked were covered in flowers, bees and butterflies. Birds sang everywhere, but none as loudly as a tiny virtuoso perched on a thorn bush. I didn’t recognise him.. though I thought he was a warbler of some sort. I wondered if he might be one of the few remaining marsh warblers, famed for their song… he certainly deserved to be, both in volume and virtuosity. You would not believe that such a tiny thing could sing so loudly.

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It was both wonderful and shocking to realise this might have been a marsh warbler*. I am no expert on birds… but he looked rather like one when I tried to identify him later. If he was, then to see and hear him was even more of a privilege as there are thought to be only six or eight breeding pairs left in the UK and the little birds are on the red list for conservation.

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There were other birds too though…many of them just youngsters, newly fledged and wearing their juvenile colours. Like the young robin that frequents my garden, you cannot tell what they are at first glance… their feathers do not yet identify them and you have to see how they walk and how they hold themselves to know what they are.

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We expect a robin to have a red breast and a blackbird to be black. When they are not, we puzzle for a while to know what it is that we see. Expectations and appearances can blind us to reality, so we have to reach beyond them before we can see and know what is real.

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We finally made it down after a superb afternoon in the loveliest of places. Soon we would all gather for dinner in St David’s itself, but for the moment, there was a cool breeze and the shimmer of sunlight on the sea. The shoes and socks were off… the trousers rolled…and we let the clear waters wash away the heat from aching feet, leaving behind only the balm and memory of beauty.

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  • If anyone can give a positive ID on our little song-master, I would be very grateful!

Going west – Coetan Arthur

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Arthur’s Quoit came as something of a surprise.The huge neolithic tomb rises from the plateau behind St David’s Head, the angle and ridge on the capstone seeming to shadow the lines of Carn Llidi beyond. The capstone is around twenty feet long and  over eight feet wide, supported by a single orthostat that holds the point of the stone around five feet from the ground. At first glance, you assume that somewhere during its five thousand year history, the other two orthostats that would have supported it must have fallen and the earthen mound that covered it been eroded away. There are many such places where this has happened.

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A closer look, though, makes you question that assumption. It is true that there are stones strewn broken on the ground that could have been supporting stones… but the whole thing looks right, just as it is in this place. The contours of the capstone emulate the shape of the hill above far too well for it to be accidental. If the stone were raised on other supports, the visual similarity in form would be lost and we have seen this ‘shadowing’ of the landscape too often to ignore its importance.

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The oddest thing, though, is that the shadowing effect seems even more pronounced from inside the tomb. It is not the first time we have seen such ancient places arranged more for the vision of the dead than of the living. Knowing that the ancestors and their bones played such an important role in the life of the clans, perhaps this is not surprising. Were the tombs really places to bury the dead, hiding them from view…or places that were portals between the realms of life and death, gateways to an Otherworld that mirrors our own? Or perhaps they were places of initiation, where the gates of both life and death were symbolically opened? The only thing that is certain is that we will probably never know for sure.

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Later research seems to confirm that Coetan Arthur was one of a small number of earthfast tombs, where one end of the capstone touches the earth and no covering mound was built. The stones that surround the tomb could potentially have been used to seal the sides of the inner space and there are traces nearby of a barrow too. In fact, the whole area is littered with stones that seem to demand a closer look and a second visit.

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We never do research before we visit a site, preferring to ‘feel’ our way. It may seem an odd way of working, but it serves us well. Not only do we get the excitement of discovery every time, but we come without preconceived ideas and can find our own interpretations, uncluttered by the ‘official’ version. Whether or not we are right is always a matter for speculation, but then, the official version shares that same fate, even though it may be better informed at a factual level.

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Apart from anything else, the official version only looks at recognised archaeology… it takes little account of the spirit of the place, the hotly debated alignments or the natural formations which, if they are striking to our modern eyes, would have been neither missed nor ignored by the old ones who were so much more attuned to the land than we are today.

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So we explore, speculate, document and take hundreds of pictures…though usually find we have missed ‘that’ shot. Practice seems to hone awareness; details we would once have missed, we now look for and, though it sounds fanciful, the land speaks to us in ways we could not have dreamed when we began this journey so long ago.

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Our research is done once we are home and have talked through our impressions, looked at the pictures once more and played around with the symbolic ideas we have seen made visible in earth, wood and stone. The down-side to this approach is that we may miss things we would have liked to see… which means going back again for a second or third visit. This can be awkward when the sites are so far-flung across the land… but it is a fabulous excuse for returning to a place when we know that real understanding seldom comes from a first encounter.

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Whispers in the West – part four (final part)

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Whispers in the West – part four (final)

On the Saturday night, replete with the adventures of the day and a large meal from the Sloop, we could do little else but retire early and sleep the sleep of Kings. The following morning was to be one of the highlights of the trip – St David’s, itself. The famous Cathedral was to be the final destination for the weekend, but first, Lizzy, our guide, had other local gems in store…

A misty St David’s Cathedral, our final destination.

Most of the group were staying a mile or so along the coast in or near a small, family-run hotel (The Ocean Haze). Lizzy had planned it so that we could approach St David’s from the coastal path.

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As you can see from the photographs, Sunday was a very different day from the sun-baked Friday and Saturday. A mist pervaded the coast (and, sadly, the photography), though the weather was mild. The coastal path here offers intense beauty, no matter what the weather, though I have been accused of being a bit of a masochist when it comes to walking in the rain…in my view, it’s all part of the fun as long as you’re dressed correctly!

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After what seemed like a short walk, we emerged from the footpath and directly into our first stop – St Non’s Well and the ancient and modern versions of St Non’s Chapel.

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To quote the signpost, “This ruinous Chapel stands on the spot where St Non gave birth to St David in the sixth century.”

The single site, of about an acre, is home to the Well, the old (ruined) chapel, and the more modern chapel, which is old enough to have its own, interesting history. There is also a retreat centre above the newer of the two chapels.

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St Non’s Well.

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The sign tells us that St Non’s Well is said to have sprung up during a thunderstorm when St David was born, about 500 A.D. The waters are said to cure infirmities.

A Survey of St David’s, done in 1717 (see below) says of it:

“There is a fine Well beside it (St. Non’s Chapel), cover’d with a Stone-Roof, and enclos’d within a Wall, with Benches to sit upon round the Well. Some old simple People go still to visit this Saint at some particular Times, especially upon St. Nun’s Day (March 2nd) which they kept holy, and offer Pins, Pebbles, Ec at this well”

(Survey of St. David’s by Browne Willis, London 1717) quoted from the website at:  http://www.stnonsretreat.org.uk/history.html

There are two versions of St David’s origin. The first is that he was sired by a local nobleman; the second that St Non, then a nun, was raped and made pregnant, but chose to keep the child and bring him up within the church… The gritty truth is often ‘sanitised’ in church history. Either way, St David became a very influential figure in the life of West Wales, and far beyond.

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St Non’s Well is regarded as one of the most sacred wells in Wales. It was fully restored and re-dedicated by the Passionist Fathers in 1951. At the same time a small shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary was placed opposite the well.

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A short distance from the well is the ruin of St Non’s original chapel. There is very little to see apart from the partly-demolished walls – with one exception. In the ruins of the Chapel built over the place of St Non’s house can be seen a 7-9th century creed stone with an incised Latin ring Cross. with a vertical line that descends from the Celtic circle in a very unusual way. This has come to be known as the Cross of St Non. Knowing it to be original I looked at it for a long time after photographing – it had a powerfully, peaceful effect, standing alone in the misty morning of that Sunday.

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Just up the pathway from St Non’s Well is the ‘new’ Chapel of St Non, known as the Chapel of Our Lady and St Non.

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This was constructed  in 1934 by Cecil Morgan-Griffiths, a solicitor from Carmarthen, using stone from ruined local chapels. He had built a house (which is now the retreat) on the site, and decided to build a church, there, too. This resulted in the construction of the most westerly church in Wales and one wonders if he sported a wry smile with reference to nearby St David’s in the process…

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The chapel is a very simple structure and measures 25 feet long by 12 feet wide. It has beautiful stained glass windows of  St Non, St David, St Bride, St Brynach and St Winifred. Cecil Morgan-Griffiths died the year after the new chapel was completed.

It is a truly beautiful place and we all drank in the humble simplicity, which was to contrast, later, in my mind at least, with the sheer size and magnificence of St David’s Cathedral.

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The window to St Non.

We made time for a group prayer, for one of our Companions fighting a terminal illness, then left quietly, bound for the final destination, the Cathedral of St David’s.

Coming from the coastal path, and St Non’s Well, we entered the Cathedral precinct by the ‘back door’, so to speak.

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St David’s has to be one of the most beautiful Cathedrals in Britain, if not the world. It’s location may seem remote to modern minds, but in mediaeval times St David’s occupied a strategic position at the junction of major land and sea routes between England, Wales and Ireland.

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Originally a monastery, St David’s dates back to around 600 A.D.

In its fifteen hundred year life, it has seen tumultuous change. During the first four hundred years of its life, it was attacked and destroyed many times by tribal raids. Two early bishops were murdered in later Viking raids. In the 9th century King Alfred turned to St David’s for help in rebuilding the intellectual life of Wessex.

The Cathedral was visited by William the Conqueror in 1081, when he came there to pray. Then in the twelfth century Bishop Bernard, appointed by King Henry I, secured a “privilege” from Pope Calixtus II, allowing St Davids to become a centre for pilgrimage – an honour it continues to enjoy, today.

During the English civil war, much of the building was destroyed by Parliamentary soldiers. The present structure began to emerge in 1181, when Cathedral status was secured.

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The list of prominent saints and bishops associated with that long history would require a volume or two, in itself. Better, perhaps, to take a few glimpses of the splendour of its wonderful spaces.

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There are so many separate interior spaces that it would take days for the visitor to feel comfortable that she or he had a meaningful mental ‘map’ of the place.

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The main ceiling are so beautiful that you just want to bend your neck and stare – which becomes a strain after a minute or two… Ideally, we could lie down on a blanket and just drink it in!

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The magnificent vaulted ceiling of the tower.

All too soon, we had to go, but not before a light lunch to prepare us for our long journeys home. This part of Pembrokeshire is very beautiful and warrants a return visit or six!

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We said our goodbyes back at the hotel, thanking Lizzy and John for a truly wonderful time. Next year we hope to visit Scotland for our Summer ‘solstice’ weekend. Watch this space for details…

Previous posts in this series: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

The Silent Eye runs four such weekends per year; in April, June, September, and the start of December. Apart from the main April workshop, which combines mystical drama with teachings, they are very informal occasions, but a good way to meet some of the names and faces from the Silent Eye School of Consciousness. Everyone is welcome – we simply wander in a landscape and get to know each other.

The formal teaching programme of the Silent Eye School is a three-year correspondence course, studied at home and in the individual’s daily world, with personal supervision via email, and workshops. The teaching programme is based on a guided journey through the spiritual layers of a nine-pointed figure called the Enneagram (below). The Silent Eye is a not-for-profit organisation and charges as little as possible for its work.

The Silent Eye's version of the enneagram has a few extra features added to the core (but unchanged) symbol.
The Silent Eye’s version of the enneagram.

You can find details of the forthcoming events for the year on our website.

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Whispers in the West – part three

Whispers 3 - 1

Whispers in the West – part three

After the group’s successful ascent of Carningli (panorama shot above), the second day of the Silent Eye’s Whispers in the West weekend continued, with a short, further car journey to one of the historic highlights of the trip – Pentre Ifan.

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Pentre Ifan is the best known, and because of its height, the most impressive megalithic monuments in Wales. It is believed to be the remains of a chambered tomb for the communal burial of the dead, which would have been used, continuously, for some period before finally being sealed for good. The tomb was erected in the Neolithic age, perhaps as early as 3.500 B.C.

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The burial chamber itself was once partially covered by a great cairn (see schematic, below), extending well to the rear, but the stones have long since been removed; so it now lacks its original covering.

Pentre Ifan schematic from board

(Schematic taken from a partial photograph of the CADW information board at the site)

Pentre Ifan is classified as of the Portal Dolmen type, with the front of the chamber composed of three large uprights set in an ‘H’ formation – though here it is placed, unusually, at the centre of a curving facade of slabs, in line with the design shown in the schematic.

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The enormous capstone, nearly 17 feet long, weighs over sixteen tons and is supported on just three stones, as can be seen in the above photograph. It is believed that the juxtaposition of supporting and non-supporting stones was part of the design of the dolmen.

The weather continued to be wonderful, as you can see from the photographs. Beyond this, though, and the fact that it was now late afternoon, there was a very peaceful atmosphere about Pentre Ifan. It is a very beautiful and spiritual place. No-one in our party wanted to depart…

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In leaving, we took one final look beyond the perimeter hedge, to see the now-familiar shape of Carningli, mountain of the angels, from which we had just come. Seen from this angle, you can see how high it is, and how it dominates the land around.

And then it was back in the cars for a short journey into a very beautiful valley to the north of Pentre Ifan to see St Brynach’s church in the lovely village of Nevern.

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The church is most famous for one of its many yew trees, near to the gate, which is called the “Bleeding Yew”. The yew tree is about 700 years old, which is extraordinary in itself.

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It has a red sap running out of it which has the consistency of blood – though it dries pink rather than brown. Trees are known to ‘bleed’ when their internal flow structures are exposed, but, according to local legend, St Brynach’s bleeding yew has been in that state for hundreds of years.

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There are many myths about why the Nevern yew tree bleeds: some say that as Jesus was crucified on a cross it is bleeding in sympathy. One myth says that a monk was hanged on this tree for a crime of which he was innocent and the tree is still protesting the injustice. There are many other stories, but the church and its surroundings have much more to offer than just the Bleeding Yew.

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Further up the main path to the church is a large and dominant Celtic Cross, carved with the familiar Celtic knot-work pattens seen elsewhere in western Europe.

The cross is one of the most perfect examples of ancient Celtic stone carving in all Wales. The total height is thirteen feet and the cross is two feet in diameter at its thickest point.

Experts date the cross as late 10th or early 11th century.  The four sides of the cross are carved with geometric interlacing patterns.

The West and East faces have inscriptions. One is Ans, meaning Dominus, latin for Master. The other is not as certain, and could be the word for Hallelujah.

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Language is major feature of the inside of St Brynach’s church, which unashamedly celebrates the Celtic history of the land around it. The famous Nevern Ogham Stone, which has inscriptions in both ‘Celtic – Ogham’ and Latin, has been laid as the lintel of one of the windows in the south side of the transept.

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The photo shows the Ogham lines cut into the corners of the stone to form words. There is even a notice showing you how to use the stone to write your name in Ogham – assuming there are sufficient letters.

And with that, our time in Nevern had come to an end. It had been a long and wonderful day of discovery and we were due to have an early dinner at the Sloop pub in Porthgain, on the twenty mile return journey to St David’s.

Lizzy had arranged things so that we would just have time for a slight detour on the way there to have a very special glass of Welsh cider at a place called (locally) Bessie’s pub in Cwm Gwaun. The valley which houses Bessie’s is well hidden and I would not have liked to find it on my own! Having said that, the village was delightful and full of friendly local people, sitting on their doorsteps in the early evening sun, who smiled at our band of weary travellers and waved us towards Bessie’s – the only pub in the valley.

And the cider? Well, if you get chance, have a pint of Black Dragon if you’re passing through these parts. ‘Nectar of the Gods’ springs to mind…

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The final part of this series of posts will conclude, next week, with our Sunday morning walk to St David’s Cathedral, via the coastal footpath and St Non’s clifftop church and shrine. St Non was the mother of St David.

The Silent Eye runs four such weekends per year; in April, June, September, and the start of December. Apart from the main April workshop, which combines mystical drama with teachings, they are very informal occasions, but a good way to meet some of the names and faces from the Silent Eye School of Consciousness. Everyone is welcome – we simply wander in a landscape and get to know each other.

The formal teaching programme of the Silent Eye School is a three-year correspondence course, studied at home and in the individual’s daily world, with personal supervision via email, and workshops. The teaching programme is based on a guided journey through the spiritual layers of a nine-pointed figure called the Enneagram (below). The Silent Eye is a not-for-profit organisation and charges as little as possible for its work.

The Silent Eye's version of the enneagram has a few extra features added to the core (but unchanged) symbol.
The Silent Eye’s version of the enneagram.

You can find details of the forthcoming events for the year on our website.

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Whispers in the West – part two

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Whispers in the West – part two

The second day of our the Silent Eye’s Whispers in the West weekend began with relief – that we didn’t have to drive all the way across South Wales, again, to reach the town of Newport – our starting point for day two.

There are, apparently, many Newports in Wales, but only one of them, some twenty miles up the Pembrokeshire coast from our base in St David’s, has this nearby:

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It stood alone on what looked like the cliff edge, dramatic and serene. In the brightness of a warm June day, with azure skies, we walked forwards in respectful silence… to look at ‘Samson’s Rock’.

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Carreg Samson is five thousand years old… quite a thought, when you consider that its capstone, five by three metres and a metre thick, has rested for a considerable part, if not all, of that time on only three of the six standing stones, which vary from one to two metres tall.

I hadn’t realised until recently, that most of these Dolmens (or Quoits, as they used to be popularly known, although this, technically refers to the capstone, alone) were, at one time, buried, sometimes with enough of the stone visible to form an entranceway. The land has eroded or been excavated around them, yet their fundamental construction was so strong that they remain stable, like stone creatures from a distant age, to tantalise us in our search for their deeper meaning…

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It was as hot day, and we were beginning to thirst for a coffee, at least, so we played a game, with Barbara supervising of how many Silent Eye weekenders can you fit into a Quoiter pint stone glass… sorry, couldn’t resist it!

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Lizzy had structured the day very carefully, to give us all the best the coast and the nearby hills had to offer, and we had to leave the serenity of Carreg Samson and its idyllic location for our next Dolmen, just along the coast.

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Carreg Coetan Arthur is a neolithic chambered tomb, or dolmen, of the same age as Carreg Samson, which sits in its own little ‘park’ within a holiday village built during the late 1980s. According to Lizzy’s carefully prepared notes, its significant location is obscured by the hedging, but it stands a few hundred metres south of where the river Afon Nyfer enters Newport Bay; and just over a mile north of the hills of Mynydd Carningli, towards which the dolmen seems to be orientated.

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It consists of four uprights, and is not much taller than a person. The remains consist of four uprights, only two of which support what appears to be a precariously-balanced, wedge-shaped capstone, which is tilted backwards. There is little trace of any of the original cairn material that once covered the stones.

We stopped and stared, admiring what Stuart had named “Little Bear” before taking as many photos as possible before being shunted out of the way by the next group of visitors.

Lizzy’s plans for the day were unfolding, beautifully, and Carningli, the mountain of the angels, beckoned, as the next item on our agenda.

But that coffee would have been nice… And, as fate would have it, we were about to get one, but in a rather unexpected way. Lizzy suggested a short stop in the small town’s centre and we set off for a nearby car park, in three cars, around the tight streets of Newport’s main road. Sadly, I took a wrong turn and we lost sight of the lead car and ended up doubling back before concluding that we were lost! We had noticed, on our detour, that there had been a sign to a beach car park nearby. The two lost cars turned down this road, reasoning that we might be easier to find in such a location, and we emerged onto a car park next to a very scenic beach with a… tea room across the road!

Well, we reasoned, Lizzy wouldn’t have wanted us to go thirsty in our confusion, and, if we stayed put, there was a good chance she’d find us…

Half an hour later, guzzling tea, coffee and cream and jam scones in the garden of the tearoom, and not looking anywhere near guilty enough, we were ‘found’ by our guide and brought back into the convoy to begin our climb up to the Angels of Carningli.

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Carningli doesn’t rise up like some of the stone masses of Snowdonia, but it does dominate the landscape for miles around; and it is accessible with ordinary walking gear with about a thirty minute climb, as the car does a lot of the work for you.

We began the climb, with everyone aiming to reach the top. Ages and fitness levels always vary on these occasions, so it’s wise to constantly check that everyone’s okay. By the time we had reached the plateau below the rocky summit, it was obvious that there were very determined people intent on conquering that peak, perhaps doing something they had not done for a many years.

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It was a wonderful spirit and got us all to the top – with considerable pride on the faces of those who had had to work the hardest.

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The top of Carningli is very rocky and we had to pick our way carefully to a stable ridge from which we could all look down at the glorious views of Pembrokeshire’s countryside and coast.

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In this magical spot, the verdant countryside is as beautiful as the lovely coast.

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We had climbed Carningli with an additional goal in mind: to hold a distant healing vigil for one of our members who is facing a severe illness. Chris, one of the weekend group who had to work the hardest in the climb, revealed he had a secret goal – to take back a small rock for our suffering friend, ‘charged’ as it were, with the spirit of that shared moment.

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It was a very beautiful, lofty, interlude, and we were glad that Lizzy had urged us to make the climb – the views, alone, were worth it. We came down from the peak of Carningli the direct way, which was somewhat challenging, but we all finally emerged back at the car park and began to dream of a promised cider in a little village that lay close by.

But, first, we had an appointment with another Dolmen – one of the best in Europe; and a wonderful church in a very special valley… So Chris had a lie-down on the grass, instead…

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More to follow in the story of this amazing day… quite a bit more, actually…

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The Silent Eye runs four such weekends per year; in April, June, September, and the start of December. Apart from the main April workshop, which combines mystical drama with teachings, they are very informal occasions, but a good way to meet some of the names and faces from the Silent Eye School of Consciousness. Everyone is welcome – we simply wander in a landscape and get to know each other.

The formal teaching programme of the Silent Eye School is a three-year correspondence course, studied at home and in the individual’s daily world, with personal supervision via email, and workshops. The teaching programme is based on a guided journey through the spiritual layers of a nine-pointed figure called the Enneagram (below). The Silent Eye is a not-for-profit organisation and charges as little as possible for its work.

The Silent Eye's version of the enneagram has a few extra features added to the core (but unchanged) symbol.
The Silent Eye’s version of the enneagram.

You can find details of the forthcoming events for the year on our website.

leaf and flame 014