Monthly Archives: March 2009

The Hill of Wells

The Hill of Wells

21st March 2009

‘My eyes made fountains’, John Masefield

Looking towards British Camp, Malvern Hills, 22rd March '09

Looking towards British Camp, Malvern Hills, 22rd March '09

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.

Riding the Awen

Badbury Rings

Badbury Rings

15-16 March

Late last night returned from a talk I gave on my book Lost Islands to Sue Stone’s Positive Living group. The most enjoyable part of it was the ride down in the sunshine yesterday afternoon – I stopped off at Badbury Rings, a fairy fort near Wimborne Minister, just off an incredible avenue of beeches. Its centre, contained within an impressive triple ring of ramparts, is filled with majestic trees. Whenever I go there I always end up feeling sleepy and wanting to nod off against one – but I feel I would wake up in three hundred years time, like a West Country Rip Van Winkle. It made a pleasant pitstop, to say the least – green tranquility after the roar of the road. I used the time to get some headspace before my talk. It’s been full on lately, what with getting two books ready for publication – one for print (Places of Truth by Jay Ramsay, coming out this Friday, touchwood) and one for the publisher’s deadline (The Way of Awen – my follow up to The Bardic Handbook). What with a stack of marking as well, things could get too breaking point – but I’m staying on top of them, just! It seems I am destined to lead my life this way, by the seat of my pants, no matter how much I plan – riding the awen, trusting in it to give me the inspiration and energy to achieve whatever I need to.

Feeling relaxed, if soporific (Badbury had slowed my metabolism – my brainwaves from alpha to theta – a little longer there and I would have started scribbling, but interestingly I didn’t have my notebook, or even camera on me when I went up to the hill. They had been left behind on my tank-bag. I was just meant to ‘stand and stare’ for once) I drank some coffee from my flask, checked the map and set off.

I arrived in Bournemouth, at West Cliff as the sun was setting. I got myself some chips and sat and watched it and the beautiful soothing vista of cool blue water against the dying gold.

Bournemouth from West Cliff

Bournemouth from West Cliff

I read through my notes and hunted down the venue – St Ambrose Church Hall (who was St Ambrose – Merlin Ambrosius perhaps?). I said hi to the host, Sue Stone, who seemed excited to see me in my leathers (it turns out she used to ride a bike herself). I got ready for my talk. The place filled up. There was a good turn out – a full house pretty much. I started with raising the awen, then went straight into my Oisin story – finishing with Niamh’s song calling him to Tir nan Og. Then I lead them in a ‘lost island’ visualisation, using John Lennon’s haunting ‘Imagine’ song as a prompt for ‘imagining your utopia’. Then I plunged into the main body of my talking, following the awen. I read out an extract from the book, answered some questions and ended with an extract from my next Windsmith novel, The Well Under the Sea, in which I describe my created lost island, Ashalante (an island at the crossroads of time where lost souls find each other). Afterwards I chatted to some of the group members, who shared their enthusiasm for islands. Then I guzzled some caffeine, scoffed some chocolate biscuits for the sugar and hit the road. There was a freezing fog on the way home – not much fun along windy roads, however romantic Dorset mist might seem. It was like being on Niamh’s fairy steed, returning to Erin, trying to find the home I knew – would it still be there? Would I make it back, or would my ‘saddle strap’ snap (I discovered my tank bag’s strap had come loose) and I be overwhelmed with mortality? It certainly felt possible in the freezing pitch black night. But the roads were clear and I felt awake enough. I stopped in Salisbury for refueling (myself and the bike) and made it back for midnight. I needed a dram of whisky when I got in, and a hot water bottle – but even that didn’t stop me feeling cold. I really needed a long soak. Wrapping myself in my duvet just kept the cold – which had numbed my extremities – in. Due to the high levels of caffeine I needed to get home, I wasn’t able to get to sleep, despite being exhausted. Blearily, I ‘awoke’ up at 5am, made myself a tea and snack and read until I finally fell into blissful sleep…but not for long enough. Could have slept the rest of that morning but had loads of marking to do. Had it all been worth it? The New Age entrepeneur certainly made more out of it than I did (if I had been paid a pound for every mile travelled there and back I would have felt  my effort more fairly remunerated – I got basic expenses, and a basic fee but nothing to warrant my exertion). Nevertheless, things can be reciprocated in ways we don’t realise. You never know if someone had been touched by what I had said. Inspired. Certainly the people that came up seem to be. One Scottish lady enthused about the book on islands she was going to write. If I had sparked something, then it had been worthwhile…but at the moment, with my aching bones and bleary head, it doesn’t feel so!

Deer's Leap, Mendips, overlooking the Somerset Levels

Deer's Leap, Mendips, overlooking the Somerset Levels

The previous day had been, in comparison, a joyous breeze. A beautiful Spring day, I took the bike out for a spin on the Mendips, taking my route to Chew Valley along lanes lined with golden daffodils (so different in the daytime!) and stopping off at Stanton Drew – having a coffee in the beer garden of the Druid’s Arms next to the Cove (remains of an ancient burial chamber). Then I took the back roads to Priddy, and to Deer’s Leap – a picnic site with stunning views over the Somerset Levels, which looked spectacular on such a clear day. Glastonbury Tor rose mythically from the haze, like a dream of Camelot. A good place to get a perspective on things. Then I called in on my friends Amy and Jose who had just moved into a lovely cottage near Wookey, on the side of the Mendips. It was good to catch up with them, and see their place – which made me green with envy! I took Jose a bottle of rum to thank him for helping me out with my bike, and some chocolate and wine as a house-warming. Yet a cup of tea and a good old chat can’t be beaten. I returned in the fading light, carrying the sun inside me.

The Green Wave

A rainy Sunday after a shower of creativity this week. Last night I took part in a group book launch, organised by Peter Please of Away Publications. He invited twelve artists/poets to create mini-booklets sampling their work – in a unique format Peter calls ‘concertina books’: high quality, limited edition art books, quirkily collectable. I contributed two poems for a collection I called ‘Wildblood’ – Roebuck in a Thicket, and Wolf in the City – exploring the animal in the human and the human in the animal. I performed these at the launch – the wolf one is always fun to do (it brings out my ‘inner lycanthrope’). Peter, Skip (who typeset the books), Helen Moore (fellow Bard of Bath), John Moat (co-founder of Arvon) and others performed. Wine was quaffed and people mingled. It was a charming event, held at Widcombe Studios – and it shows what you can do collectively. I said to Peter afterwards, paraphrasing the African saying: ‘A man by himself can go faster, but a tribe can go further’. This seems to be the way things are happening more and more these days – the way ahead. While the big companies and financial instutions collapse around us, we get on with things at a grassroots level, taking the power into our own hands – no longer waiting for the blessing of the powers that be to make things happen. The creatives have become the producers. With advances in technology (DTP, internet) the methods of production and to an extent, distribution, are now in our hands. It is also so much more enjoyable collaborating like this. We can go so much further, and enjoy the journey at the same time.

The previous day Jay Ramsay visited and I went through the proof copy of his new book (Places of Truth: journeys into sacred wilderness) with him. It’s due out on the 20th March with an ecobardic showcase at Waterstones, Bath – so the pressure is on, but deadlines make things happen (they say a poem is never finished, only abandoned – basically, you can only do what you can in the time given). It is looking good and it’s been a pleasure working with Jay, a fine poet who gets my vote for the next Poet Laureate. On the 20th I am going to host an evening of poetry, storytelling and acoustic music with friends and fellow performers. The focus of the evening is ecobardic – and one of its core principles is this idea of creative collaboration.  Working with Fire Springs, with Away, with Phoenix, with Cae Mabon, with ARC, with David Lassman (with whom I co-run the Bath Writers Workshop) … it feels like a movement is growing. It’s exciting – although times are difficult it feels like there’s all kinds of creative possibilities out there, and there’s hope. Perhaps it’s the optimistic energy of Spring – ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, as Dylan Thomas put it. A creative surge – intoxicating, exhilarating. One has to ride the wave or go under.

Running the Dragon

Running the Dragon

1st March, 2009

Worms' Head - half way point - looking towards the Devil's Bridge

Worms' Head - half way point - looking towards the Devil's Bridge

Midday at Worm’s Head, Penrhyn-Gwr, on St David’s Day. A good place to be, in the Spring sunshine. The gulls and gannets shriek, the withdrawing waves roar in indignation (‘you may have won the battle, but not the war…’). The sea is turquoise – sky, a chalk-blue. A few wisps of cloud on the horizon – more over Devon and Somerset, south to England. Visitors seem to be queuing up to ‘run the dragon’, waiting for the tide to retreat sufficiently for the causeway to be safely exposed. Serendipity is with me today as I arrive at the right time to cross. Low tide is 14:40 and there’s a two and half hour window either side of this, so at 12.10 I will cross. For now, a moment to catch my thoughts.

Here at the dragon’s head I honour the spirit of Wales and its finest son of song, Taliesin – Penrhyn-Gwr to Penbeirdd…Hail!

A good place to reflect on my journey of a bard, as I reach the completion of the Way of Awen – may the dragon give me a final burst of awen!
The very end of the Worm’s Head – a dramatic stack – is approximately a mile out. Reaching it requires a tricky scramble over jagged rocks and running the gauntlet of the tide. Time it wrong and you can get cut off! It takes me fifty minutes of energetic effort to reach the end – carrying a twenty pound backpack as well, which nearly made me lose my balance and fall into a gulley at one scary point. Good job I’m wearing my tough motorbike gloves to stop my hands getting shredded. With enormous relief and satisfaction, I reach my goal…

Sitting in the sun on the head of Worm’s Head on a grassy ledge, eating my sandwiches, restoring my energy levels, and watching mighty waves rolling in. Standing on the endstack was literally a peak experience. I realised my nine month journey had come full circle – from Orme’s Head to Worm’s Head, from the far North of Wales to the far South – a satisfying symmetry. Which one is the head, which the tail? Or does the dragon have two heads? Then it dawned on me – it is Ourobouros, the dragon eating itself. The story does not end. One ‘tale’ begats another – each ending, another beginning. We have to join the story somewhere, but there is always a before-story and after-story, and many other paths along the way.

My story started back in the East Midlands – which seems like another universe compared to here, to my current life. The landlady of the B&B said, rather presumptuously, ‘you’re as Welsh as me’ – meaning what exactly who knows – but a little know fact is my middle name is Gerald, as in Giraldus Cambrensis: Gerald of Wales. Although I have no Welsh blood (as far as I know) this is a reassuring foreshadowing of what has become something of an obsession for me – what could be called Cambria-philia, a love of Wales.

So, I hail Wales, Cambria and the Cymru on St David’s Day and, of course, Taliesin Penbeirdd. May his name endure forever. I felt complete. A good place to ‘end’ my book, but not my journey along the Way of Awen. Like the dragon encircling the world – it has no end or beginning. A circle with no edges, whose centre is everywhere.

Reaching the end of the Worm’s head is like crossing the Bridge of Leaps to Scathach’s Isle of Shadows – one has to traverse razor-sharp rocks, perilous pathways and the Devil’s Bridge. It has a mythic initiatory quality to it. I imagine Caer Sidi on the end-stack and set off. All the time the clock of the tide is ticking, making the blood pump with excitement. There’s an element of Kêr-Ys here, or Cantre’r Gwaelod – the sea is always present, threatening to inundate the land at any moment, jealousy seizing back what it had given. One feels humbly in the lap of the goddess.