The Wyrm and the Wyrd: The hidden valley

Tiny roads, miles from nowhere and barely wide enough for a car, wound between hills and hedgerows before finally opening out into the valley. And there, we became a traffic jam. The road was occupied by a horse that had evidently let itself out of its home and wandered down the lane to see the youngsters. Mare or stallion, it was impossible to tell from the last car, but the impression was that the king had come to see his subjects. When we arrived on the scene, all the foals were at the fence, nuzzling their visitor and prancing with excitement. It was, you could tell, a real ‘moment’ for them… and a lovely sight to see. It took me a while to even think of getting the camera as we watched and waited, not wishing to spook the horse.

“Before the gods that made the gods…” A few words of an old poem kept running through my mind… it was completely inappropriate. This was not a white horse, let alone the White Horse. It was Wales, not England…and King Alfred had never set foot here to my knowledge. On top of that, it was the solar symbolism of horses that long predated Alfred’s Christianity, that I was feeling as I watched the horse regally greet the foals. There was something majestic in his mien, and, with the emerald and blue of the mountains around him, there was no doubting his sovereignty.

“Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.

Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.

Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.”

“For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.

For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgement day.”

G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse

Passing glimpses of church towers and villages lost in the trees, significant stones and possible burial sites… we were kept well occupied until we arrived at a  bridge over a crystal clear stream. The stream is the Afon Dwyfor which rises in the mountains that enclose the valley. Its name means ‘big holy river’ and, watching it sparkle in purity, you need no other explanation of its name. It is so clear that the depth is hard to gauge unless a small fish swims by and casts a shadow on the gravel, yet in places, it is easily deep enough for swimming… and had I been alone, there is nothing that would have kept me out of there.

Instead, we gathered beneath the trees of the riverbank for our final readings, before setting out into the morning heat to walk at least part of the valley. It is an incredibly beautiful place and we were grateful to our companion for sharing it with us, allowing us to get out into the mountains, albeit on an easy path.

We had the morning pretty much to ourselves apart from the birds and sheep. They are obviously used to walkers, so showed no more than mild curiosity and reasonable caution as we passed. The sheer scale of the valley is impossible to capture with a standard camera, but it is equally impossible to ignore as the hills tower around you. An American friend once spoke to us about Yosemite National Park, telling us how the landscape was too vast for the human mind to encompass. The British landscape, old and hoary as it is, is smaller… ‘human sized’ and intimate enough that we can feel the vastness as it lifts the heart and mind towards the infinite. Geologists call the ancient landmass that formed this part of Wales ‘Avalonia’. It is certainly a magical place.

We followed the sheep, passing the occasional cottage or farmhouse, past tumbling cascades and wildflowers, deep into the heart of the valley. The silence is complete. The sounds of nature that break the quiet serve only to bring the unheard silence into greater relief. And relief it is. We do not, I think, realise, how noise-assailed most of us are, most of the time and how much unconscious stress that causes.

But as we walked, mechanical sound found us once more with the whirring of a distant generator drowned by the baa-ing of a thousand sheep. It is shearing time and the flocks which normally roam the hills have been gathered into  a closed field.  Even though nothing worse than the shearing shed awaited them, their distress was palpable as they crowded together at the edges of the field.

We turned back at the shearing shed, although there was another corner ahead, another mountain, another vista… There always is. There was still a fair walk back to the river and the noon sun was sweltering. For all their panic, the removal of the dense wool must provide the sheep with a certain amount of satisfaction in summer.

The official Silent Eye weekend was over… though we all still had a long way to go to get home and there were still places we intended to visit along the way. Hot and sticky, the thought of the isolated, mountain-cold river drew me onwards. If everyone else was leaving… it was tempting. But by the time we arrived, several families had taken up position with radios and deck-chairs, we had arrived and were leaving at the perfect time. Bidding our friends farewell, we took a final look at the mountains.

“Do we know where we are?”

“We do not…”

“Do we know where we are going?”

“No…”

“Cool!”

With thanks to Steve and Barbara, and to our companions, for sharing a wonderful weekend.

This was the end of the official Silent Eye weekend, but not the end of our adventures or the places we were to visit, which I will continue to share on my personal blog.

 

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Stations of the sun

We were up and away early again, this time well supplied with munchables on which to break our fast. We may have missed the dawn, but we still caught the echoes of its gilding on the mountains. We wanted to take a look at a stone circle we had noticed at the end of the road, catching a meagre glimpse of the stones as we had driven back to the hotel Even from such a brief encounter, you could tell it was not a ‘real’ stone circle, but a modern reconstruction. However, in Wales, these are still a significant part of the culture.

This one, just outside Tremadog, was built for the National Eisteddfod when it visited the area in 1987. The Eisteddfod is a traditional festival: a celebration and competition of music and poetry. It is held under the auspices of the Archdruid and the Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain, the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain. ‘Gorsedd’ comes from the Welsh, meaning ‘throne’ and Eisteddfod comes from the Welsh words for ‘sit’ and ‘be’. Circles are often constructed as memorials of these important events and are completed a year in advance so that the Archdruid may proclaim the themes and details for the coming year.  The stones are still placed with ritual care. The Archdruid will stand upon the Logan Stone. To the east and facing him, will be the Stone of the Covenant, that station of the Herald Bard. Behind this are the Portal Stones and of these, the one to the right of the entrance to the circle is aligned with  the midsummer sunrise, while the stone to the left is aligned with the midwinter sunrise. Whilst they lack the powerful presence of the ancient circles, there is still something about these places that mark the stations of the year.

As for us, we had a more mundane station awaiting us. We were still way too early, though, and wandered back to Borth y Gest on a fruitless search for coffee before heading for Porthmadog. By this time, the mist had cleared on yet another splendid morning and we watched the swans in the harbour perform their morning ablutions as we waited.

One white vessel caught my eye for its name. Branwen was the sister of Brân the Blessed, he whose severed head had entertained and informed his companions for so long on the mound at Harlech, before being taken to the White Hill to protect the land. They were children of a marriage between the dark house of Llyr and the ‘Bran’ means ‘raven’ and ‘wen’ means ‘white’, ‘blessed’ or ‘fair’.  I have a personal interest in the name since ‘Wen Weston’ came into being as ‘Don’s‘ partner in The Initiate and the ancient tales have run alongside the adventures of Don and Wen.

It occurred to me that, as the raven and the swan are both traditional psychopomps, as Morgana had illustrated during the Feathered Seer weekend…and as we had unconsciously cast them for one of the rituals… then perhaps the ‘white raven’ refers to the swan. It would certainly fit with the tales of the brother and sister from the Mabinogion. I wondered about the significance of that in symbolic terms too, Brân and Branwen were children of a marriage between the Houses of Dôn and Llŷr, light and shadow. Dôn was the mother goddess, while Llŷr was associated with the sea…two states of being. Death, the realm of the psychopomp, could also be said to be the point where two states of being meet, like a wave upon the shore…

But it was not the time for such musings. We were meeting our companions to take the first of the mountain trains up to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The station in Porthmadog has been beautifully restored and the trains bring back many childhood memories.The views from the tracks are spectacular, by all accounts and the old slate-mining town sits within the heart of Snowdonia…

… except that, when everyone had arrived and the timetable had been checked, we found that we would either have too little or too much time to spend at the terminus. Fifteen minutes was never going to be enough and the alternative would have made everyone far too late for the long drive home. Alternatives were discussed, but the question was settled when one of our companions said that he would like to share a very special place with us. It was not far away and would be well worth the drive….

The drive alone was ‘worth it’… passing through some incredibly beautiful places as we headed towards Cwm Pennant, a hidden valley often cited as one of the most beautiful in Wales…

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Solstice stones

We had no idea where we would be taken for the final visit of the day. We suspected an ancient site as the area is just strewn with them. A brief glance at a map of prehistoric sites had left me wishing we were going to be in the region for at least the whole summer… you would need it to have any chance at all of seeing  surviving remnants of our ancestors. We were not disappointed. A short drive and a shorter walk and we found ourselves at the neolithic burial chambers of Dyffryn Ardudwy.

It is immediately impressive and unusual, though the brilliant sunlight reflecting on white stone and the deep shadows cast by a stand of oaks made it difficult, at first, to take in the full scope of what we were seeing. Small rocks cover an area around a hundred feet long by fifty feet wide. It is roughly trapezoidal in shape and, once again, reminiscent of the ceremonial stone axes that played such an important part in the culture of our ancestors.

Aerial image showing the shape of the enclosure, half hidden beneath the trees. Image: Google Earth

These axes, particularly those made in the most renowned ‘factories’ were traded across the country and even through Europe.  So many have been found unused, buried as grave goods or offerings, that they seem to have been much more than a mere practical tool. These ‘axe factories’ where the stone was quarried and crafted all seem to be in areas where the stone itself has special beauty of properties…and they are always in areas where major stone circles and monuments remain.

You have to wonder why. Was the stone itself prized for its qualities, or was it more to do with the location from whence it came? What did the shape represent, a mere stylising of a more practical form or did it hark back to early and symbolic representations of the womb of the goddess? That we will never know… but the shape itself crops up far too often at these sites to be ignored.

There are two burial chambers set within the field of stones. The smallest, set to the west and facing east, is the oldest. In fact, it is amongst the earliest of such tombs in the country, dating back possibly six thousand years. To put that in perspective, it was already ancient before the Great Pyramid was conceived.

There are many dolmens and traces of the ancient past around the village and a glance at the map shows some startling alignments across the landscape. The church of St Dwywe within the parish was built upon one ancient mound. A straight track from the church runs past the cairn of Cors-y-gedol to another cairn on Moelfre that aligns with the summer solstice. On the hills above Dyffryn Ardudwy, a line of standing stones tracks across the mountains. There can be no question of the importance of the area to our ancestors.

The smaller, older chamber is a classic shape, with tall pillars at the eastern entrance. They support a massive, sloped capstone and between them, a blocking stone still stands, closing the chamber. In front of the blocked entrance is a shallow ‘V’ shaped  ‘pit’. Excavations in the 1960s found no bones within the chamber, but fragments of deliberately broken shouldered urns and polished stone plaques were found in the pit.

When it was first constructed, the smaller chamber was enclosed within a round barrow. Almost all dolmens were so enclosed, the shape of the barrow changing over time. Most had a passage or forecourt that gave entrance to the tomb which was often used for multiple burials, with bones being added and removed over the years. It would seem that to our ancestors, their ancestors still had a part to play in the life of their communities.

The most curious feature of the western tomb, though, is the enigmatic carving that adorns the stones… stones that would have been buried and out of sight. Except, perhaps, to the dead. We have come across this too in many places and it suggests that these were not ‘just’ burial places, but houses of the dead, where the dead were seen to have a life after their own fashion.

The larger chamber also faces the east, but is in a slightly more battered state. Local stone has been used to shore up the slowly sighing uprights and though the stonework of the repair is obvious, it has been done with some sympathy.

In front of the entrance, you can still see the line of larger boulders and a single standing stone that would have formed part of the forecourt. When the second chamber was constructed, the covering mound grew to include and encompass the earlier round barrow. When you consider how much stone remains that has not been robbed over the centuries and how much more it would take to build a hill of that height and area, enough to cover both the chambers and the twenty five feet in between, you begin to get some idea of the scale of these constructions. To see the sunlight gleaming on white stone, even today, is a striking sight. Especially as it turns the white stones blue… echoing the sea and sky… and the blue light we found at the start of our adventures.

Light seems to play an important role at all these sites, even though many of them would never have seen the sun once construction was complete. Did our forefathers deliberately include the light within their houses of the dead? We know that they did;  famously at Newgrange and we have found evidence at other sites we have visited too. The play of light in the larger chamber, though, can only have been a fortuitous gift when it cast a hawk at my feet, flying into the east.

We explored…. not to our heart’s content, but as time allowed. Then, to honour the place and the solstice, we shared a simple ritual of light and darkness, passing, appropriately enough, through the brilliant sunshine and the velvet shadows cast by the trees. As we prepared to depart, something was nagging  from the stones and a persistent black and gold dragonfly convinced us to linger when the rest of our companions had left. The dragonfly seemed to approve…. and what better approval than that of a dragon could you have in Wales?

You always know when it is time to leave these sites. There is an indefinable shift in the feel of the place. Leave too soon and you may miss the gifts. Linger too long and you spoil the magic. You can only listen to the land and the moment… and wait to see what the next moment brings. And that means every minute is fraught with possibility.

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Beached

In joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.
Tolkien.

I know very little about seagulls. We do get them here where I live, far inland, raiding the landfills… but they seldom cry. There is something heart-aching about that sound that pulls at the soul with an indelible longing. And always, when I hear them, those lines from Tolkien wander through my mind. It is not a discontent with what is, but rather a yearning for the possibilities of what might be; a feeling very similar to that of childhood and the first sight of a summer sea. That too was carried on the cry of the gull. And we were heading for the beach…

The plan had been to take the train into Harlech and walk back, a couple of miles along the beach. The heat, however, was intense, so we settled on a more gentle perambulation, seeking out a quiet corner on the sands. It is our custom to invite our companions to share readings at these events. Some choose pieces that fit the theme of the weekend, others choose readings that speak to heart and mind. They always seem to fit the moment and the environment somehow, even when we have not given a detailed itinerary or when we have changed our plans to suit the day. This time, we had added the bibliomantic readings into the mix too and the randomly chosen quotations had a special relevance and nowhere more so than on the beach.

“Overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now.” 
Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

We found a spot where someone had been balancing rocks. There were a number of these ephemeral sculptures around the place where we rested. It is not as easy as it looks to get even these fairly regular pebbles to retain their place. Michael Grab is an master of the art and his gravity-defying sculptures are something else entirely. He describes the meditative state of awareness that is both required and engendered by the stones as ‘finding a zero point or silence within yourself’ where awareness can be brought to understanding the form and the stone. It seemed the perfect place for the readings and subsequent discussions. It seemed, too, as if the readings were already answering those discussions, even before they arose.

As we sat on the sand, children ran along the beach, destroying most of the balanced art, except those pieces closest to us. It was a small sadness, knowing that the wind and tides would have taken them anyway. The children had no concept of what was involved in their creation. Their parents did not seek to stop them, and that brought the role of authority back into play. There is a place for it, when it teaches values, but how often are those values skewed or blinded, I wonder, by those authority itself has learned?

Those who gaze at you in joy will find your face joyfully reflected back at them.  
Nicolas of Cusa

Yet, it was as children that we waded out into the cool of the sea. Typically British and unprepared, shoes and socks were removed, trousers and skirts were tucked up…all that was missing was the proverbial knotted handkerchief. My one regret was the lack of swimwear… though I went out farther than was safe for my dignity, at least the sun was hot enough to dry the sodden skirt. Such moments, when the years fall away into unimportance are reminders of who we are behind the authority of our own outer personalities. The child remains within us and just as we would not confine a child in life, so should we offer the inner child its freedom.

The day was drawing to its close as we left the beach. Flowers as joyous as the sunshine lined the paths and birds, well-used to bounty seemed unflustered by our presence. There was, we were told, one more place to visit before heading back to Porthmadog for dinner. It was to prove, in its way, as stunning a site as any we have seen…

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Harlech

Leaving Portmeirion and its mysteries behind, we drove across the estuary to Harlech in search of lunch. Stuart and I had parked beneath the Norman castle that morning when we were in search of breakfast. The imposing bulk of the walls, towering high upon the castle mound, still makes a powerful statement today. I was glad we had seen it from beneath in the grey morning mist, with the remnants of its curtain wall enclosing the rock, as it allowed us to get a true impression of its scale and erstwhile might.

We had lunch in its shadow, looking back across the estuary to the mountains. Snowdon dominates the skyline here, almost everywhere you go, and I was torn between the desire to wander those hills and a need to get close to the sea. The hills make my heart sing…they always  do, no matter where they are. There is something about the high places that calls and always will. I can understand that; the hills were my first love, a place where I first learned the stories of the old ones from my grandfather and mother …and where I learned a sense of wonder that is with me still.

The sea is a different thing. I have always lived far from the shore yet the waves have always whispered in my veins. I suppose it comes of being island-born… although we tend to forget that our country is, after all, no more than a small island in a big world. The song of the waves touches something primal in most people.  Life arose in the oceans and so the waves sing of home. Although most of the ancient gods of the sea are male, they live within her ever-changing body and, like to like, she calls to us.

For the moment, though, we were poised between the hills and the sea, looking out at both and yet our attention was drawn, inevitably, by the vast stone presence of the castle. It was built by Edward I towards the end of the thirteenth century when he invaded Wales. There had been an impromptu Shakespearian theme running through the morning, though, and so, for me, it was the figure of Owain Glyndŵr, the last Welsh Prince of Wales, who caught my imagination. Glyndŵr had taken the castle in 1404 and it ecame his base thereafter. I had first come across him when reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV and, although I knew little about the man, the power of the name and character had stuck in memory and imagination. He could ‘summon spirits from the vasty deep’ and was described as ‘profited in strange concealments; valiant as a lion, and wondrous affable; and as bountiful as mines of India. ‘

There were those who were for knocking the castle down and restoring the hillside to its natural and more appropriate state as a holy place. It was here, so tells the Mabinogion,  that Bran the Blessed, high king of the Island of the Mighty, was petitioned for the hand of his sister, Branwen. When the marriage ended in tragedy, betrayal and war and Bran was mortally wounded, he instructed his companions to cut off his head and carry it home. It was here too that the severed head of the king entertained his court with stories for many years before being finally buried beneath the Tower of London on White Hill…. but that is another story.

Even though I was glad to have seen Glyndŵr’s castle, I had no real desire to walk its walls. To be honest, I would have struggled to climb its turrets… especially in the noon heat. I was fine on the flat, but slopes were still knocking me for six and the thought of the inevitable spiral staircase to the top of the tower was just too much. While most of our party explored the castle, a symbol of armed might and power, Stuart and I wandered off to the house of a Higher Authority… the parish church of St Tanwg.

St Tanwg is the patron saint and founder of the little church of Llandanwg, whose beach we would later visit. It is thought that the medieval church that remains there is built on the site of the original church dating back to the 5th or 6th century, when Tanwg, son of Ithel the Generous, came over from Armorica to assist King Vortigern in re-establishing Christianity in the area. There are several unusual carved stones in Llandanwg church dating back at least fifteen hundred years.

The church in Harlech, however, is not particularly old, nor does its architecture bear the marks of grandiosity. It sits on a hill at the centre of Harlech and was built in 1840 to replace the older church on the beach. It is a simple, peaceful building, cool in the heat of the day and with the colours of bare stone the only adornment on its walls.

It does, however, have some beautiful stained glass and a medieval font dating back to the 1400s. The font was probably once in use at Llandanwg church, but was found abandoned in the sand dunes before being moved to its current location. Around it are the toys and drawings of the children of the community, many of whom will have been baptised with the waters of the font, as their forefathers were.

In fact, the whole building has an air of being ‘lived in’ and used by the community. Plans for its modernisation are on show along with people’s comments and ideas. Evidence of meetings and events are everywhere. The nave of the church is very much alive with the life of the community it serves, while the sanctuary is set apart in simplicity, with an elegant cross bearing the risen and crowned Christ and the Four Holy Creatures marking the separation between the mundane and the sacred.

It is an odd and obvious contrast with the temporal power exhibited by the castle. The  display of secular power was designed to cow and coerce; there is strength and a violent authority built into the very fabric of its walls. Yet, just a few hundred years after it was built, it fell from use and into ruin when that power shifted, as it always does. The little church represents another authority, and while opinions of any organised religion may be polarised, there can be no denying that humankind has always sought a higher source of direction. The spiritual journey has taken many forms over the millennia, from the earliest stone circles and sacred groves, through the temples and great medieval cathedrals to the aspiration of the individual. No matter what shape it takes or Name it wears, the quest for Light remains at the heart of Man.

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Contrasts and small things

The heat was both welcome and unexpected. Britain in summer offers no guarantees, but on this, the Silent Eye’s third foray into Wales, we had once again been blessed with sunshine. Inevitably, at the earliest opportunity and armed with ice cream, we headed for the shade.

We had separated to go exploring and, as might be expected, Stuart and I had left the man-made landscape for the trees. We had spotted a small gazebo that promised superb views over the village and climbed the path into its relative comfort, feeling the contrast between light and shadow playing on our skin as we walked.

The landscape is not exactly natural. The old cove of Aber Iâ that is now known as Portmeirion, was once dominated by a Norman castle. Gerald of Wales mentions the newly built Castle of Deudraeth in 1188, and, although there is some debate about whether or not it was this castle, what is known is that the rocky outcrop does bear the remains fortifications and stonework dating back a thousand years. It was never a place of might, designed to withstand armies, but rather a symbolic demonstration in stone of lordly power. The castle was demolished in the 19th century and some of its stone was used in the building of Portmeirion. The main stretches of ancient wall that remain today are hidden within the rhododendrons, with only Clough Williams-Ellis’ fake battlements easily found. I rather like the idea that the old symbol of authority was used to create beauty and only a replica left behind.

A robin wandered over to see who we were and what possibilities we might offer, its wild heart free to choose its actions, within the limits of its nature. We relaxed, watching the world, until the silence was broken by the arrival of the land-train. For a few minutes, we saw the arm of authority exercise its power.  As the train stopped, its occupants descended and, on instruction, made for our gazebo. They dutifully admired the view, each ceding place to another, and taking a quick photograph. The whistle blew and they all returned to the land-train, to be taken to the next place they would be told to admire. It was a small thing, a matter of minutes, but served to highlight the unconscious alacrity with which we human beings accept that our actions may be dictated.

Rejoining our companions, we headed once more for the relative cool of the woods, stopping to investigate the miniature lighthouse that rises from the trees. It is a tiny thing, made of metal and seems to serve no other purpose than to be there, adding its contrast to the green. You have to wonder if it works… or was ever meant to do so. It poses some odd questions. A lighthouse should be a beacon, yet, if it does not  shine, if it is no more than an empty shell, is it still a vessel of light?

One of the wishing trees of Portmeirion was just around the next rise. There are a number of them; felled trees into which passers-by hammer coins with a stone. No-one seems to know why or when they began to appear. It reminded me of the old tree stump we had found outside a church, into which nails had been hammered, a relic harking back to an earlier time and belief. Once it was believed that witches could be kept at bay by hammering nails into trees. The coins, though, may be more of a votive offering. In folklore such gifts to the spirits of the trees and springs bring health or luck… and the removal of such coins reverses the gift.  The number of coins is astonishing, even in the one small stump. Almost automatically, the urge to do likewise arises, even when the conscious mind has no such desire. It is as if remnants of a herd mind still linger, just below the surface, waiting for evolution to take its hands off the wheel.

A second robin joined us as we contemplated a contorted tree, hopping close to my outstretched hands…probably to see if they held lunch. He watched from a safe distance as we broke out of conformity for a while. The tree was too good not to climb, but too high to reach the lowest bough without a little ingenuity and teamwork. That is the other side of the ‘herd mind’; perched in the tree, we had achieved the improbable by working together.

We began to climb, leaving the sun for the shadows beneath the trees. The oriental gardens would be a perfect place to stop and share our readings. Oriental they may be, but our first sight of the water would have inspired Monet.

It is a place of perfect contrasts. Deep shadows and bright sunlight, green wilderness and careful planting. What has been planted is allowed to grow wild… what grows wild is managed. Neither seems rigidly curtailed, yet neither are allowed to overwhelm the other. Dragonflies and damsel flies skitter across the water. Butterflies like scattered petals fill the air. Nowhere is Williams-Ellis’ vision of the melding of man and nature more perfectly expressed than in this small corner of the landscape.

It was here that we chose to sit and take our first reading of the day, a perfect complement to that of the previous night; an illustration of polarity in form and essence and the relationship between the sacred and the apparently profane.

Others also shared their readings, each adding to the moment their own particular light and shade. “…the sense of the sacred as something pervading the whole order of nature. Every hill, tree and river is holy…” In the green places, it is easy to remember, to look out and see the sacred in the world. The need is to see it in the small things of everyday life and within ourselves.

As we read, the third robin of the morning, even bolder than the others, came to take part in the proceedings, showing no fear at all, just curiosity and trust. Folklore has many tales to tell of the robin and it is seen as a symbol of divine service as well as a messenger of new growth and beginnings. The robin also brings another gift… he does not fight, but resolves his disputes with song. Our earth is full of teachers and the spiritual journey may be signposted by the smallest of them. The little bird came in trust and was welcomed with love…

… and laughter. Our redbreasted friend was hot. The sun was at its zenith, the day unbelievably hot…and our robin simply flopped in the dust, ruffled his feathers, opened his beak and did nothing for a while. It seemed like an excellent idea.

We made our way back to the entrance, leaving behind a place to which we will inevitably return and headed across the estuary to Harlech.

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Natural authority

Portmeirion, the guide told us, was the brainchild of the architect and conservationist, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. The project had been a long time in hatching… once the idea had been conceived, he waited twenty years in order the purchase the little bay where the village now stands. Building began in 1925 and  continued until 1972.  All that was well and good, but told us little beyond the bare facts.

It was when the guide moved on that things began to fall into place. Many of the building materials… even some of the buildings themselves… had been rescued and recycled from estates and locations around the country, to save them from demolition and destruction. The gilded Buddha had come from the film set of Inn of the Sixth Happiness. A cherub had been left on the doorstep… the facade of a portico was once a fireplace… That explained the bizarre juxtaposition of styles and details and cast them in an entirely new and sympathetic light.

We began to take more notice of those details and the mystery deepened. Windows that we had thought would cast such beautiful traceries of light into their rooms were revealed to be no more than paint and plaster… masterpieces of trompe l’oeil….like the three arched and three round windows that grace one side of the villa. Carved reliefs were the same visual trickery, no more than flat paint, many of them created by Williams-Ellis’ daughter.

It was not until we reached higher ground that we really noticed the rooflines that sported only fancy facades and the front halves of finials and cupolas… Perspective makes a house the size of a small bungalow look like a mansion. In fact, the whole village is a beautiful illusion…but we had a feeling there was more going on even than that.

Williams-Ellis’ vision was to create a village entirely in harmony with the natural landscape, instead of following the prevailing fashion for subduing it. That explained the villas cascading down cliffs, and the rocks and tree roots running through buildings. He was passionate about the landscape and served on many government committees, advising on conservation and railing against the urbanisation of the rural landscape. He had also been instrumental in setting up the National Parks in England and Wales that preserve our natural heritage. Clearly, the man had a passion for the land.

Yet we wondered about his attitude to authority. As an architect, he was, by definition, happy to impose his own authority on the landscape…and yet it was obvious that he both loved and respected the land and its natural beauty. At Portmeirion, it seems as if he willingly embraced the authority of Nature.

On the other hand, there are many traditional symbols of authority in the works of art and craft dotted around the village. Eagles and lions are traditional symbols of Empire, and we had already noted that all the lions seemed to have rather pained or strained expressions… Was the architect making a subtle point here? Would he have missed the fact that his Eastern lion was holding a severed right arm… the same arm missing from his Buddha? Maybe that has raised a wry smile.

Perhaps it was no more than coincidence. Just what was going on here? There was the yacht that had never sailed, moored to the jetty and named ‘friends reunited’… yet the yacht is made of concrete and is part of the jetty. There is the lighthouse in the wood.  A myriad icons and fragments of religious architecture in a village with no place of worship… a loose cannon on the hilltop, pointing towards Harlech Castle. Could a Commander of the British Empire really be cocking such a snook at established authority?

Perhaps the most telling detail was the shrine to the architect himself. A bust of Williams-Ellis looks out on his creation from behind a perpetual flame in the Town Hall, where wedding ceremonies are held. The bust is flanked by two laughing masks… and sits between the ladies and gentlemen’s toilets. And his funeral arrangements made a point too; his ashes were sent up in a rocket to become part of a firework display over the estuary… He had certainly had something to say.

Somehow this seemed to be tying in very well with the theme of our visit. Steve had suggested we consider the notion of authority and, drawing upon the character of The Prisoner, whether, if our lives were faced with an imposed change, we would ‘accept’ or ‘resist’.

You could debate that question all day, but not, I think, until you had defined your terms. Life offers us change at every moment and many of them would count as imposed. They occur without a ‘by your leave’ and may be part of a natural evolution or something that turns your life upside down. Accept or resist? It is not, I believe, a straightforward choice.

The change itself may be irresistable and immutable… the authority may be as  unassailable as an earthquake. Death is a change and cannot be resisted when it strikes… but nor can a sunrise. To resist the unresistable seems a futile act of rebellion, a mere exercise of wilfulness. Yet there are many changes that need not and indeed should not be accepted. Choices are to be made, even within those absolutes that define who we are and will become and the exercise of free will is part of our purpose.

It all reminds me of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The surreal landscape of Portmeirion echoed the debate. The authority of Nature had been accepted here; the rocks, trees and curves of the land itself were allowed to define and shape the vision of Man as buildings grew around them. Details were added as architectural items were simply left at the gate and choices were made about their disposition. And yet, the vision of the architect… his authority… now clothes the landscape. Perhaps there is a lesson in that… that where Man and Nature can work in harmony, deferring to each other’s authority for a greater good, change can be beautiful.

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Rabbit-hole or Looking-glass?

We were way too early at Portmeirion. Our companions were not due until ten, the gates did not open until half past nine, but we wandered over anyway about twenty past, just to get a first glimpse…and were allowed in straight away. This proved to be a real gift as we had the entire Village pretty much to ourselves for a while…just long enough to get the best shots of what was to prove a far more interesting place than we could have imagined.

I have always wanted to see the place, having only seen it in pictures. I was aware that it had been inspired by the Italian village of Portofino, that it had been used for the filming of the iconic TV series, The Prisoner, and that it had been built, almost in the spirit of a folly, by the vision of one man. Other than that, I knew nothing.

I was prepared to be disappointed, simply because I didn’t want to be. At first glance, from the gate, it looked none too promising. The No 6 cafe where we were to meet our companions, some fairly drab tarmac and what looked like a cardboard cut-out of a mermaid. Nightmare scenarios of a small-time Disneyland began to whisper in my mind.

It just goes to show how little you can judge anything at first glance. Had we but known it, we had already blithely walked past several important clues to the nature of the place. I’d even photographed them… but I had only looked at, not seen, them. And that is always a mistake.

We thought that the gracious Italianate villa was really the first thing of interest, but only because we had accepted the vision of normality presented to perception by eyes and lens.

We should have been more attentive… and suspicious… passing beneath the carriage gate. But why would we be? It sort of reminded me of France. And Italy…and Scotland… but apart from the mural within the ceiling of the inner arch, I paid it too little notice, focusing on the details instead of looking at what was in front of me.

The drama started as soon as we were through one arch and faced with another. The elegant pastels were replaced with hotter colours and even stranger details… modern brick walling coupled with mullioned stone windows and wrought iron.

Yet, the other side of the building went back to primrose yellow… with Georgian windows and canopies, more of the modern bricks and a pair of caryatids… But trying to resolve that anomaly had suddenly become the least of our problems.

Definitely not Disneyland… you could tell. There was more to it than showmanship. It reminded me more, somehow, of Alice’s Wonderland… I can honestly say that I have never seen anything quite like it. But even then, caught perhaps by astonishment, we still didn’t ‘get’ it. Not even when we had both commented on the juxtaposition of the hanging black sheep beneath the declaiming Christ.

The guy who had built this place had a weird mind. That was the first and obvious conclusion. What kind of weird remained to be seen. Buildings were mismatched with their architectural details. The colours were astounding, artwork everywhere and either the land had been constructed or shaped to take the buildings or he buildings had been built around the rocks.

A golden Buddha sits serenely in a bright blue ‘cave’ made of hewn stone. Cupolas tipped with gold glint in the morning light. Exotic flowers and plants line the streets…

…and in the centre is the plaza with a giant chess board and the oddest collection of gates and colonnades you can imagine.

The mind of the man behind all this was either that of a lunatic or a genius and so far, it was hard to tell which. The place is too strange to call it beautiful. Yet I cannot think of another word to do it justice. It is more than ‘quirky’, too serious to be dismissed as ‘touristy’…  perhaps ‘fabulous’ or ‘fantastic’ in their literary sense would be the right word…

For once, I wished I had done more research, but knowing there was information to come, I had been content to wait. I had no idea what kind of mind could conceive and execute such an architectural fantasy. Was it overweening arrogance to use, perhaps move, the landscape and the rocks? Was it a case of ‘more money than sense’? Or were we missing something here…

Gradually, it began to dawn on us that we were. I think it was the ‘terrified lion’ sculpture that finally set the mental wheels in motion, though it would be a good while before they finally began to pick up enough speed.

We had not fallen down the rabbit-hole into Alice’s Wonderland… we had been taken through her Looking Glass into a microcosmic look at ourselves… and once that realisation began to dawn, it changed everything.

Who was this guy, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who had built this incredible fantasy? Why had he done so and what was he trying to tell us?

We began to make our way back up towards the gates where we were to meet our companions, incredibly grateful to have had the Village to ourselves for a little while and very glad we were going to have a second chance to wander its spaces. There was an awful lot to learn.

The visitors were beginning to filter in. Soon it would be busy and that would change the atmosphere of the place. We would have had no chance of seeing what we had seen with crowds of people milling around. The colors, shapes and details are distracting enough on their own…

With our companions, we headed for the No 6 cafe, for coffee and that missing breakfast at last… where Steve would set the scene for the psychological exploration of the morning and where we could begin to process what was slowly coming to light. The man was a genius… still weird, but a genius…  But it was not until we joined the guided tour after breakfast that we finally began to realise in what way. It only took a few facts to completely change our perspective and make all the clues begin to fall into place. Portmeirion has a sense of humour.

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…