The Hill of Wells
21st March 2009
‘My eyes made fountains’, John Masefield
I am filled with awen having just seen Robin and Bina Williamson perform their Songs for the Rising Year at Malvern Wells village hall – around the corner from where I’m staying (a lovely B&B, the Dell House, sleepily ensconced within its leafy bower as the name suggests). It was a joy to see and hear them both again – a fitting ‘end’ to my bardic journey (in the context of my book, The Way of Awen: journey of a bard – due in imminently) for Robin is a living embodiment of the Penbeirdd – a worthy inheritor of Taliesin’s title for my money. I am a bard, but Robin is on another level entirely, and shows in his consummate skill and stage professionalism how far I have yet to go – not that I imagine matching Robin’s huge talent and achievement (he is a living legend, after all). It is rightly humbling to note there is always someone more advanced than you. In truth, we all have our own mountains to climb – and whatever size that, the achievement of reaching its particular summit should not be diminished by the mountains of others.
The fact that I made it here, however humble an immram, is a kind of ‘mountain’. This morning I was sluggishly recovering from the previous night – a big night when we launched Jay’s book (Places of Truth: journeys into sacred wilderness – working on it whetted my appetite for such places) at Waterstones, Bath; an event fellow poet and tutor Mary Palmer asked me to organise. So I had to co-ordinate the performers, promote it, MC it, and publish Jay’s book (being a writer requires more skills than ‘just’ writing these days – gone are the days of waxing lyrical in ivory towers and perhaps just as well). It was a good night – the awen flowed. All the performers were very professional so helped to carry the weight – it was a collective effort and and credit to all those who took part… And, what a relief, we did it! Despite last minute ‘labour pains’ we got Jay’s book out on schedule (collected from the printers the day before – phew!). It’s been an intense couple of weeks – stacks of marking, Jay’s book, my book, Waterstones, Bournemouth talk last Monday, Bath Writers’ Workshop, my evening classes… I felt I deserved a break. It’s essential to replenish the cauldron – and where better than on the hills of wells, where Long Will, as William Langland was known locally, lay down ‘tired out from (his) wanderings’ and had his visionary dream ‘among the Malvern hills’ of his divine allegory, Piers the Plowman.
Having decided to bunk off ‘school’ (my marking not quite finished, but the sun was shining and shouting Carpe Deum!) I packed my saddlebags and hit the road. It was a lovely sunny road/ride-up along the edge of the Cotswolds and across the Severn plain. When it’s like this the bike is a joy to ride. I felt like ‘king of the road’ again, shaking off the final cobwebs of winter. After I had checked in, I went for an early evening walk – determined to catch the last rays of the day. The golden light had lost its keenness, but in the back of my mind I had my favourite line of English poet (written by Malvern poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning): ‘the sun on the hill forgot to die’. It was thrilling to think these very hills I ascended might have inspired that line. And true, the light seemed to linger, as I hiked up through the woods like Wandering Angus (a fire in my head fed by the oxygen and kindling around me). The woods worked their magic – it was good to arrive, to connect with the genius loci. To orientate myself. The path zigzagged up through the steep woods. A collapsed retaining wall at Holy Well meant I had to take a more circuitous route to the top, but finally, I cleared the tree-line and made the ridge at sunset – though the sun was obscured behind a low bank of cloud. And yet there was still the dusk to savour. Two guys passed by, but otherwise I was alone. I called for awen on the heights. Satisfied, (planning to return for a proper walk the following day) I descended through the darkening woods.
Now I had to attend to physical needs – sustenance before the concert. The only eating place was a Thai restaurant, not quite what I had in mind. Instead I grabbed a sandwich and a packet of crisps from the garage (served by a cheerful Oriental girl). I’d had a good lunch before setting off, and plenty of snacks so wasn’t ravenous. I freshened up for the evening’s entertainment. It was great to go the nearby gig and enjoy a couple of real ales (which I would not have been able to do if I’d been staying further away – the Dell was a real find). In the break I said hello and Robin remembered me straight away, reminding me to his wife, though I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years since booking him for an event in Bath. His lovely wife Bina thanked me for what I said about them in The Bardic Handbook. I gave Robin a dedicated copy of An Ecobardic Manifesto – for he is cited in it as an exemplar. Afterwards we talked further about poets – I mentioned Vernon Watkins, as I’d been on the Gower recently; and Robin talked of Ifor Davies; which brought to mind Phil Tanner, bard of Llangennith. I was flattered when Robin called me ‘a pretty good poet’ (which, compared to Bob Dylan’s comment about Robin – ‘not bad’ – is positively glowing!) We joked about hanging out on lonely knolls, hoping to bump into the Queen of Elfland. I said I had done this on the Eildon hills, but had no such luck. Robin had been there too – and perhaps faired better!
It was great to sit in the front row – having got the last-but-one ticket earlier that day – and be fed by a master of awen. I am so glad I came – I didn’t decide for definite until that afternoon, when I reserved the ticket, found and booked the B&B, packed and blatted up here – it just required faith … in the Way of Awen.
The next morning, after a peaceful night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, I headed for the hills, making a beeline for British Camp, where Langland was said to have been inspired to write his famous medieval poem. I yomped up the hill in my bike leathers – not ideal for walking in! Breathless, I collapsed on the summit and stared at the blue bowl of sky. Sunlight glittered on the reservoir below and although not quite the original source reminded me of Langland’s lines: ‘…I lay down to rest under a broad ban by the side of stream, and leaned over gazing into the water, it sounded so pleasant that I fell asleep’. The hill fort was impressive – its steep flanks would have made a formidable defensive structure – and I wondered whether Tolkien had been inspired by it for his ‘the ancient watch-tower of Amon Hen’, whilst walking here with Lewis – and by the impressive ‘beacons’ the beacon fires which Gondor called for aid to Rohan. The local bishops were less friendly, the Earl of Gloucester raising the 13th Century Red Earl’s Dyke between their respective bishoprics. Caractacus was said to have made his last stand here, (a small cave, Clutter’s Cave, is said to be the resting place of the British hero who rise to his countrymen’s aid) inspiring Elgar, who said in 1934 when suffering from his final illness: “If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.” I can see why the composer found such inspiration here. Given long enough it may untap the awen in anyone. Today I only had a brief taste, but it was enough to turn on the taps. Moving onto Black Camp, I parked up, stashed my togs, and followed the undulating ridge north, enjoying its spectacular natural roller-coaster. Turning back along its leeward side, I found a quiet sunny spot overlooking the western vale and penned these lines:
On Malvern Hills
On these lettered hills I find peace.
Thick as cream the Spring sunshine pours
over the wooded wolds, cloistered
from the world. Here song waits, poised,
a bird in the air – waiting
to strike at any fecund second.
The sky is full of poetry, the green Earth
budding with awen.
From these pure springs Masefield, Browning, Auden
drank. Elgar whistled symphonies in the silent folds.
Inklings rambled, forging a landscape of myth and
language, and Langland dreamt his rustic allegory.
From the defiant fastness of British Camp
to Worcestershire Beacon
something positively English
can be gleaned about this charmed island
of six hundred million year old granite,
enduring, quietly conquering
all who reach its sanctuary. From
its many wells it suckles all.
Great Mother Malvern.
Her children take
shelter amongst her skirts,
nourished by selfless springs.
Thank the wild saints, the spirits of place,
for this hallowed spot, this bedrock of Albion.