Thursday, 1 May 2014

Into the Faery Woods

The Hanging Woods, Ceredigion, Wales
Where the water whispers mid the shadowy rowan-trees
I have heard the Hidden People like the hum of swarming bees:
And when the moon has risen and the brown burn glisters grey
I have seen the Green Host marching in laughing disarray.

Fiona MacLeod

One of the few remaining habitats of the faery race in Britain and Ireland is a certain kind of woodland: off the beaten track and rarely frequented by humans. There was one very small area near the ford down my lane – a few years ago, I would half-sense, half-see them there at twilight: smallish, sturdy, warrior types who sometimes appeared with raised bows and arrows. They were highly suspicious and defensive – and well might they be, for a couple of years ago the man who owns the piece of land by the stream cleared the tangle of bush and briar, and coppiced some of the trees where they lived. I have not seen them since.

Approaching the woods
But on Easter Sunday, a day made bright as a blade by a chill east wind, David and I visited a most remarkable wood where the faeries had clearly taken residence. This is what they call in these parts a "hanging wood" – a long sweep of dwarf trees clinging to the banks of a dizzyingly steep cliff. Most of them are sessile oaks, stunted by strong sea winds, their branches twisted into improbable shapes by their constant battle with the elements.

Primroses and bluebells
The canopy of interwoven branches provides shelter for plants that have always been associated with faeries. Bluebells line the path into the trees: not for picking, unless you want to be pixie-led and never come out of the woods again.  Primroses are pools of pale yellow light in the dappled shade: protective plants which keep evil spirits away. Wood sorrel, known in Wales as "fairy bells" are said to summon faeries to their nightly revels.


Wood anemones
Then there's the wood anemone, whose name means "daughter of the wind"; and enchanter's nightshade, whose botanical name, Circaea alpina, reveals it as the flower of Circe, the woodland enchantress in Homer's Odyssey.

The hanging woods come to an abrupt end at a thick blackthorn hedge which appears to keep the leaning trees – and the unwary walker – from tumbling off the cliff into the sea below.  I stood for the longest time gazing over their glistening sprays of white blossom, my jacket snagged by their merciless thorns, watching the prehistoric-looking cormorants fly back and forth to a large rock, some of them with beaks full of tidbits for their young. Two seals briefly showed their bobbing heads above the water before disappearing into its depths again. This end of the wood reminded me of the poem, "Green Rain" by Shropshire poet, Mary Webb:

Into the scented woods we'll go,
And see the blackthorn swim in snow. . .
There are the twisted hawthorn trees
Thick-set with buds, as clear and pale
As golden water or green hail--
As if a storm of rain had stood
Enchanted in the thorny wood,
And, hearing fairy voices call,
Hung poised, forgetting how to fall.


Ancient woods beneath Carn Ingli, Pembrokeshire
I am reminded of other faery woods I have walked in: the brooding assembly of ancient mossy oaks in North Pembrokeshire, where visitors in the 1920s reported hearing the pipes of Pan. Hidden among these trees is a cave said to have been the residence of either a local druid or the Irish saint Brynach – or perhaps they both lived there at different times, worshiping different gods, beneath the sacred mountain of Carn Ingli, the Mount of Angels.


A Dryad of Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor
Further afield are the haunted dells of Wistman's Wood on Dartmoor, the ferny foxglove hollows of the Fairy Glen on the Isle of Skye, and in Ireland, well, it's still a country blessed by quite a few wooded faery haunts, probably because people still hold Them in respect and put out offerings of milk and cakes in woodland shrines to keep Them sweet. But if one springs to mind, it's a certain hazel wood under a rocky cliff on the Burren in County Clare. At its heart is a holy well and flowing stream – it's the kind of place where Wandering Aengus himself might have found his "glimmering girl," as Yeats tells it in his famous poem.


So what makes a faery wood? In such places, the web of life is still intact. The invisible silver threads that link tree and plant, bird and insect, wind and water, are all connected in an etheric structure that scientists like to call an "ecosystem." The inherent natural harmony of life is like a struck bell, whose sound ripples out in patterns of sacred number and geometry. Such a place holds a particular kind of resonance that appeals to certain tribes of the faery race, who are nourished and sustained on such energies just as humans are by food. For instance, the clairvoyant writer, Geoffey Hodson, in his book, "Fairies at Work and Play," describes watching a small brownie who looked exhausted, passing into a tree:

"While observing the form I lost touch with the consciousness, which retreated to the centre of the trunk of the tree, and appeared to spread itself out into the corporate cell life of the tree. Ten minutes later, the brownie reappeared, rejuvenated and dancing with life and joy." (page 49)

This is why the traditional Scottish people who were very attuned to the spirit world followed the practice of creating a "Gudeman’s Croft," a part of their land or garden which was left to grow wild, and where faeries could  joyfully play, feed on the energies of sun, water, plants and soil, and regenerate themselves. Interestingly enough, this is now recommended as sound ecological practice in permaculture, the science of sustainable gardening, as it creates a fertile environment for birds, bees and insects. The hidden people appreciate it, too.


Leaving the enclosed world of the hanging woods for the immensity of sky, sea and air, we walked along the coast path, passing the occasional wind-sculpted hawthorn, which seemed to cling to the cliffs for dear life.


Then turning landwards for the road back home, we hiked over hills of coconut-scented gorse, passing a ruined oak where young lambs watched us with great curiosity.





I have a plan to return to this enchanted place one summer evening between the two lights, to sit with a quiet mind watching the dance of tree and wind, perhaps even catching a glimpse of the hidden people of the hanging woods.

Photographs by David J. Watkins and Mara Freeman, © 2014

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The White Flame


Winter is harsh and difficult. Not for nothing did the Romans call their Winter Solstice festival, “Saturnalia,” ruled by Saturn, the planet which has a reputation of being a hard task-master.  While its polar opposite, Jupiter, teaches by supporting us, giving us a hand-up, opening doors, Saturn teaches by removing supports and throwing us back on our own resources. It’s easy to be positive relaxing on a sunny beach in July – but who are we when the temperature drops below freezing, the snowy fields are bare, and icy roads make even going for a walk a dangerous proposition?  Like the naked trees outside my window, stripped of their summer glory, we too are laid bare at this season of death, with only our inner resources to sustain us through the nights of darkness.

This year, in particular, many people are finding it hard to cling on to hope in the face of so many global crises, including economic downturns which have led to the loss of jobs and even homes, the failure of climate change talks and the accelerating extinction of species, not to mention the news that leaders of many nations throughout the world have been exposed as weak and self-serving at best, and dishonest and corrupt at worst.

So it is that at the Winter Solstice we look for stories that remind us that, in this world of opposites, the seed of Light is always born in the darkest hour. It was for this reason that the birth date of Jesus Christ, originally set in the springtime, was changed to late December by the Roman church in order to bring it in line with the age-old pagan myths about the return of the Sun after the longest night of the year.

A story that I have always loved is told about the late English novelist and playwright, J.B. Priestley, who had a vision in the form of a lucid dream in which he was fully conscious. He found himself looking down from a high tower beneath which a vast flock of birds were migrating. As he looked on, time appeared to accelerate as if he were part of a movie that had mysteriously sped up. In front of his eyes generations of birds of every known species grew frail and died, to be replaced in a great aerial stream by newborn fledglings who also grew older and died within what seemed like seconds. Priestley was overcome with sadness to see each life pass by without apparent purpose. At this point he thought that it might be better if all living creatures, including ourselves, could be spared this apparently futile struggle. As if in answer to this thought, time moved up another gear causing the birds to rush past in a blur, and within this vast carpet of feathers he noticed a white flame leaping from body to body. He understood this to be the flame of life itself. ‘What I had thought was tragedy,’ he later wrote, ‘was mere emptiness or a shadow show . . . I have never felt before such deep happiness as I knew at the time of my dream of the tower and the birds.'

Priestley’s vision reminds us of the infinite and imperishable creative power of life that underlies the constantly-changing world of appearances in which we live. However storm-tossed we may be on the ocean of life, all things pass and change, while beneath it all, the white flame continues to burn through all eternity.

This Winter Solstice light a candle, and as the flame blossoms into life, attune yourself to the undying White Flame. Feel an answering flame spring into life within the centre of your body. Let it glow and grow to fill your body, encompass your home and family, and send it to all those who struggle in the darkness. Remember that you yourself are a spark of the One Radiant Light that shines through all the worlds, and that you can call upon this Light to illumine all your days and nights and inspire you to be part of the healing of our planet.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Melangell and the Hares



In the deep fastnesses of the Berwyn Mountains stands a small church surrounded by ancient yews more than 2000 years old. It is dedicated to the Celtic holy woman, Melangell, who came there in the sixth century. Legend tells how a prince named Brochwel was out hunting in the forest when his hounds started a hare. The terrified creature ran as fast as the wind and sought refuge in a bramble thicket. The prince galloped after the eager pack, urging them to move in for the kill, but was astonished to find them backing away, their tails between their legs. The more he shouted, the more the dogs fled howling in fear.

© MOMA, Wales

Brochwel rode up to the thicket, and there he saw a beautiful maiden, deep in divine contemplation. The hare was crouched under the hem of her cloak, its wide amber eyes boldly facing down the dogs. The astonished prince asked the young woman how long she had dwelt alone in so remote a spot; she replied that in fifteen years she had never seen the face of man. She gave her name as Melangell, the daughter of an Irish king who wanted her to marry an old chieftain. Swift as a hare she fled to Wales to preserve her virginity and live a holy life in the wilderness of the Tanat valley. The prince was so moved by her story that he gave her this part of his lands to be a sanctuary forever.  Hares were given her special protection and it was forbidden to hunt them. From that time forth they accompanied her everywhere she went, and became known as "Melangell's lambs."

Melangell's reputation for holiness grew, and pilgrims from all over Wales made the dangerous journey over boggy moorland and through treacherous mountain passes, seeking healing and refuge, as the hare had once done, beneath her cloak of compassion. Many miracles took place at her woodland sanctuary and sacred spring on the hillside above. Around 1160 C.E. a stone church was built with a shrine where people could come to venerate her bones.

But who was Melangell? Walking through the lychgate of ancient stones into this hushed and holy circle of yews, it's tempting to believe that this was a much earlier pagan site dedicated to a pagan goddess. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of a nearby Bronze Age settlement, while many round barrows, ring cairns, and standing stones dot the higher ground testament to a long-forgotten Neolithic race. On the opposite side of the river is a rock ledge known as ‘Gwely Melangell’ (Melangell’s Bed) where the saint was said to have slept. Yet it is also known as ‘Gwely y Gawres’ (the Giantess’s Bed), presumably based on an older legend of a female giant who lived in the valley.[i] Throughout Wales and other Celtic countries, significant natural or constructed rock features in the landscape are associated with giantesses and goddesses, and are often named "the Hag's Seat" or "the Old Woman's Bed."  

Up above the Pennant valley rears the mountain peak of Cadair Bronwen, "Bronwen's Seat," the highest point in the Berwyns. Bronwen may have been an early mountain goddess, perhaps cognate with Branwen, sister of the god Brân in Welsh legend. And over to the north-east on the island of Anglesey stands a megalithic chambered cairn called "Barclodiad y Gawres," the Giantess's Apronful. It was said to have been created by a giantess who was carrying the huge boulders in her apron. The weight was too much for the apron strings, and the stones fell to form the cairn. The same story is found in Scotland and Ireland to explain the creation of rocky hills and chambered cairns, and hints of a long-forgotten primordial myth of an earth-shaper goddess.

Hare in Forest by Hans Hoffmann (German, about 1530 - 1591)
The hare, that elusive creature of shadows and twilight, has long been associated with magic and the feminine in these islands. One has only to think of the well-known story of Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe, on the eve of the British uprising against the Roman occupation of Britain. Invoking the lunar warrior goddess, Andraste, to come to their aid, the queen released a hare from a fold in her dress and watched its movements to divine the outcome of the battle. Perhaps she was modelling herself after Northern goddesses associated with hares like Freyja, who was served by hare attendants, and Dame Holda, who was followed by a train of hares bearing torches.

Certainly the hare was a sacred animal in Britain, as Julius Caesar noted in his Commentaries, and borne out by the long-standing taboo on eating their flesh, which in some parts of Wales and Ireland has survived within living memory. In County Kerry it was forbidden to eat a hare in case it was your grandmother, as a spine-chillingly beautiful poem by poet, Bob Beagrey attests.[ii]
As hares were once associated with goddesses, so they were later regarded as faeries and inevitably, as witches up to no good, perhaps because the hare was a popular familiar of the country witch. The young Scottish witch, Isobel Gowdie, at her trial for witchcraft in 1662, recited the charms that turned her and her sisters into hares, in which shape they leaped away to meet the Queen of Elphame in her home "under the hills."

I shall go into a hare,
Wi’ sorrow and sighing and mickle care;
And I shall go in the devil’s name
Aye, till I come home again.

To change back, she would say:

Hare, hare, God send thee care.
I am in a hare's likeness now,
But I shall be in a woman's likeness even now.

In Wales such "hare witches" ran in families. The Victorian folklorist, Sir John Rhys, tells how his own nurse belonged to one such family and how his mother was considered to be rather reckless in entrusting him to her care, "as she might run away at any moment, leaving her charge to take care of itself."[iii] An early poem by Walter de la Mare perfectly captures this long-standing belief:

In the black furrow of a field
I saw an old witch-hare this night;
And she cocked a lissome ear,
And she eyed the moon so bright,
And she nibbled o' the green;
And I whispered "Whsst! witch-hare",
Away like a ghostie o'er the field
She fled, and left the moonlight there.

It's the usual story of a creature once revered as a goddess, demoted to the rank of woodland spirit, and finally to an evil witch. Yet somehow, the legend of Melangell managed to preserve the old memory of the hare as a sacred creature to be protected and cared for, a view appealing to all those who care about living creatures of the wild. This is no doubt one of the reasons that the old paths, until recently mere overgrown and muddy tracks weaving through bog and moorland, are now eagerly trodden by modern pilgrims in search of spiritual inspiration and renewal at her shrine.

Inside the low, narrow stone building, which dates from the twelfth century, a rood screen carved with oak leaves and acorns depicts the legend which made Melangell famous.  Beyond this is her canopied shrine, recently rebuilt centuries after the stones were scattered at the Reformation, and now held in high regard as the earliest surviving Romanesque shrine in Britain. Today it is glowing with candles lit by pilgrims who come to pray for healing, as they did of old. Its golden sandstone walls are carved with designs of foliage reminiscent of her original woodland refuge. It would have originally been painted and must have given the effect of enfolding Melangell in "the leafy sanctuary she symbolised, a local deity of the regenerative earth and of the sanctity of life."[iv]



[i] http://gorsedd-arberth.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/melangell-and-giant.html
[ii]
http://www.thehoneybeeandthehare.com/anthology-of-hares/
[iii]
 John Andrew Boyle. The Hare in Myth and Reality: A Review Article. Folklore, Vol. 84, No. 4 (Winter, 1973), p. 315. Online at http://rbedrosian.com/Folklore2/Folklore_Boyle_1973_Hare_Myth.pdf
[iv]
T.J. Hughes. Wales's Best One Hundred Churches. Seren: Bridgend, Wales, 2006, p. 184.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Wild Wales: In the Footsteps of George Borrow



When I was about twelve years old I used to sit in school wanting to be outside walking on the hills with the wind in my hair –  far, far away from the stifling confinement of the classroom. Somewhere I came across a quotation from a book called, mysteriously, Lavengro, written by the 19th century writer, George Borrow. I’d never heard of him before, but meticulously copied out his words in my school exercise book:

George Borrow
"There's night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?"

Much later I was to learn that George Borrow walked all over the land in the days before it was sliced up by motorways, and gathered his adventures into a few memorable books.  In the words of an early biographer, “All his major works are journeys, interspersed with travellers’ tales, strange encounters, and graphic scenes in taverns and hostelries along his way.” He chronicled “his wanderings in green lanes, his "love of Nature unconfined," his acquaintance with the gypsies, his passion for The Wild.” Borrow was deeply inspired by a landscape free from “dark satanic mills,” and by the gypsies he met, the Romani people who made the road their home. One of them gave him those words I wrote in my school book.

In 1862, Borrow transformed his notebooks written on a walk through Wales into a book, Wild Wales, which today is considered to be one of the best accounts of the country in that era. This was in my mind last Sunday when David and I stayed at the George Borrow Inn in mid-Wales,  a 17th century hotel in the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains, perched on the edge of what Borrow called “a deep and awful chasm, at the bottom of which chafed and foamed the Rheidol.”

He recounted staying there on a “rainy and boisterous night which was succeeded by a bright and beautiful morning,” and oddly enough we had the same weather:  We awoke to a single, miraculous day of pure sunlight, the only one in an endless march of dull grey skies. As soon as the sun burst over the hills we drove a few miles to Devil’s Bridge, where Borrow had walked on another November morning over 150 years ago, as he described in his book with Gothic relish:

To view it properly, and the wonders connected with it, you must pass over the bridge above it, and descend a precipitous dingle on the eastern side till you come to a small platform in a crag. Below you now is a frightful cavity, at the bottom of which the waters of the Monks’ River, which comes tumbling from a glen to the east, whirl, boil, and hiss in a horrid pot or cauldron, called in the language of the country Twll yn y graig, or the hole in the rock, in a manner truly tremendous. On your right is a slit, probably caused by volcanic force, through which the waters after whirling in the cauldron eventually escape. The slit is wonderfully narrow, considering its altitude which is very great — considerably upwards of a hundred feet. Nearly above you, crossing the slit, which is partially wrapt in darkness, is the far-famed bridge, the Bridge of the Evil Man . . .

Gaze on these objects, namely, the horrid seething pot or cauldron, the gloomy volcanic slit, and the spectral, shadowy Devil’s Bridge for about three minutes, allowing a minute to each, then scramble up the bank and repair to your inn, and have no more sight-seeing that day, for you have seen enough. And if pleasant recollections do not haunt you through life of the noble falls and the beautiful wooded dingles to the west of the bridge of the Evil One, and awful and mysterious ones of the monks’ boiling cauldron, the long, savage, shadowy cleft, and the grey, crumbling, spectral bridge, I say boldly that you must be a very unpoetical person indeed.

Since we were made of sterner stuff than to retire to the inn for the rest of the day, we made our way to the wild beauty of the Hafod Uchtryd Estate in the Ystwyth Valley. Less dramatic than the Devil’s Bridge, it is a remote and lovely place, originally the hunting-grounds of Welsh chieftains. In later times it became home to the landed gentry, where splendid house-parties were held, its walls resounding to the music of harpers and the poems of bards. Sadly, in the year 1807, a terrible fire broke out and burned it to the ground. Gone forever was its magnificent octagonal library full of irreplaceable treasures and rare books, including manuscripts on natural history, medicine, poetry and literature, in Welsh, French and Latin, some dating from the Middle Ages. Borrow remembered this tragic event on his visit:

This fire is generally called the great fire of Hafod, and some of those who witnessed it have been heard to say that its violence was so great that burning rafters mixed with flaming books were hurled high above the summits of the hills. The loss of the house was a matter of triviality compared with that of the library.

Today the estate is owned by the Forestry Commission who are working at restoring the original landscaped walks. Borrow described it very much as we experienced it on Monday:

The scenery was exceedingly beautiful. Below me was a bright green valley, at the bottom of which the Ystwyth ran brawling, now hid amongst groves, now showing a long stretch of water. Beyond the river to the east was a noble mountain, richly wooded.

Since he too visited it in November, he must have seen the glorious colours of the autumn trees, the dying fall of a bygone era . . .and maybe also a red kite, wheeling through a hallowed sky of impossible, infinite blue.
 Photos by David J. Watkins