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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Greeting the Druid…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Ascent

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

– William Everson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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