Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Seeking Taliesin

A few days after the winter solstice, we drove up the coast to the Dyfi Valley looking for signs of the Welsh bard, Taliesin. Under a sky so clear and cold it looked like it might shatter into shards of blue ice, we made our way to the estuary where the river meets Cardigan Bay. This big bite taken out of Western Wales is the result of floods in ages past; beneath these waters lie the Cantre’r Gwaelod, the ‘Lowland Hundred.’ Some still hear the bells of the lost kingdom ringing below the waves. Twisted stumps of trees on the long sands reveal a half-petrified forest at certain low tides.

Here Taliesin was born, or rather reborn, according to legend. He had started out life as a simple peasant lad called Gwion, who lived around Bala Lake in North Wales. Little Gwion fell foul of the goddess Ceridwen when he drank three drops of Awen, or Inspiration, from her cauldron. The potion was not meant for him, but for her own son. She tried to destroy him in a furious shape-shifting battle in which he turned himself into a succession of animals and birds. At the last he became a grain of wheat, but Ceridwen became a black hen and swallowed him whole. Nine months later, she gave birth to him as a human child, and not having the heart to kill him, she cast him out to sea in a leather coracle. After hundreds of years, the coracle was washed up at the mouth of the Dyfi, and found by a fisherman who was astonished to find he had netted not a salmon, but a live and kicking baby boy, whose head was surrounded by the glow of holy inspiration. He called the child Taliesin, meaning ‘Radiant Brow.’

Gwion was reborn as Taliesin on Calen Mai, the first day of summer. Today there were no signs of birth. A bitter north-east wind blew down from Snowdonia, carving the sand dunes into frozen wave patterns. It was hard to imagine the purple orchids and helleborines that draw bees and butterflies to these hollows in July. The piping calls of wading birds were stilled by the hissing wind which drove wisps and eddies of sand like ghosts racing into the sea.

Later we drove up into the hills behind the hamlet of Tre Taliesin in search of the poet's grave. The burial cairn of Bedd Taliesin was actually built in the Bronze Age, thousands of years before the bard. We found it plundered and forlorn, yet the original dolmen was clear to see, its grey stone slabs stained red by the huge round ball of the setting sun. Perhaps this was not for the dead after all, but an initiation chamber, since the story is that a night spent up here could make you mad, dead, or a poet.

Among the tumbled stones, the now fading light picked out a strange object: a small white seashell in the shape of a perfect spiral. Taliesin may not ever have been buried here, but the shell spoke silently of the endless spiral of life, death and rebirth, as day turned to night and the year began anew.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A Pause in the River of Time

Wayside shrines are an important feature of many landscapes in countries as far apart as Japan, India and Ireland. They are usually designed to provide a place of contemplation, a break from the clamor and daily stresses of our goal-oriented lives, a portal opening into silence, a pause for prayer. Modern Western landscape planning has no time for this kind of window onto the eternal, but there are still ancient places of spiritual refuge for those who know where to look. Like pools in the riverbank of Time, they offer still waters amid the relentless onward flow of modern life.

I came across one of these a short while ago in South Wales, only a few miles out of the busy county town of Carmarthen. I was walking out of the village of Llansteffan down a path which led to the sandy estuary shore of the River Towy. On a warm but cloudy May morning, the path was bordered on one side with cool green ferns, their fronds interspersed with the glow of bluebells and the white stars of stitchwort. On the other side an old grey stone wall followed the path, with a small wooden green door set in it halfway down. There was something about the latch on this door that invited entry. It opened easily, giving way to stone steps that led steeply down into a tiny roofless chapel - roofless that is, unless you count the profusion of honeysuckle and wisteria that overhung the whole place.

A plaque on the wall identified it as the holy well of St. Anthony – Ffynnon Shon Antwn in the Welsh. St Anthony was a hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert for twenty years. He returned to civilization as a man of great wisdom and inspired others to live simple, ascetic lives in monastic communities. Celtic Christianity was highly influenced by his example, and the early Church was characterized by hermits and anchorites who lived in caves and forest settings in the wilds of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, often connected with a nearby monastery. Unlike the medieval abbeys of the Roman church, these were simply-fashioned huts of mud and wattle clustered around a central oratory used for prayer and devotions. It is likely that their way of life continued that of their predecessors, the Druids, with whom they had much in common.

A carving of St. Anthony stared out from the wall with a compelling gaze. Someone had placed wild flowers in his hand, in remembrance of his affinity for nature. I knelt by the well where white shells from the nearby beach had been cast. I found out later that the well used to be visited by those in search of healing, and in living memory has been used as a wishing well. A white quartz pebble, cast into the water, was said to guarantee your wish would be granted, so perhaps the white shells took the place of the quartz. I responded to the invitation of a small stone bench to sit and meditate for a while. My eyes were still closed when, about ten minutes later, I clearly heard a voice telling me to look up. When I obeyed, I saw the image of St. Anthony lit with a single ray of sunlight, suffused with immense beauty.

Foolishly, I wanted to hold on to the moment, and ran up the steps and out of the chapel to find my husband who had the camera. By the time I returned, even though it took less than a minute, the light was gone. I had allowed 21st century technology to invade this sacred space and had broken the spell.

The experience reminded me of the time I went to Nevern Church in Pembrokeshire, famous for its high carved Celtic cross, ogham stones and ancient yew trees. I had visited it as an awestruck pilgrim in my younger days when I couldn’t afford a car and had to walk through the woods and across fields, following the tracks of centuries of pilgrims before me. Eager to see this numinous place again now that I had moved to Wales, I decided to drive there after a visit to the laundromat in the nearby town of Newport. But somehow, arriving with a load of crumpled washing in the car spoilt the whole experience, turning it into a mundane stop in the middle of a busy day, because I had not slowed down enough to access the inner state of mind so essential for visiting holy ground.

Wayside shrines are gateways inviting us to enter into a timeless experience of the sacred – but only if we slow down and open up to our own inner landscape first.