Riding the Dragon part 3
Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham Steeple
Snowdon Mountains without its people
Overton yew trees, Gresford bells,
Llangollen bridge, St Winifred’s Wells.
The Seven Wonders of Wales
After three week’s of slog finally … freedom! A long ride to Snowdonia to blow away the cobwebs. I think you can really feel the dragon in the land in Wales, especially if you ride through it on a motorbike!
On solstice eve I was invited to the wedding of Keith and Annie, two old friends from N’pton, on their farm cottage in North Wales – based on the theme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the bride as Titania, the bridegroom as Oberon, and the guests providing the rest of the Seelie Court.
I packed my pointy ears, tent and essentials and set off Saturday morning. I decided to take the route across the middle of Wales, aiming for Aberystwyth (the scenic route, and the longer one). I was hoping to see the sea and stop for a spot of lunch there, but by the time I was in the area, time was running out, and so I grabbed some much needed hot grub at the Red Kite Café (thrilled to spot some of the famous birds with their distinctive tails soon after) and blatted up the fast north road past Machynlleth, Harlech, Portmeirion…(fortunately not chased by white ‘rover’ balloons from the Village, where the cult Sixties’ TV series The Prisoner was filmed). At one point the road plunged precipitously down into the valley overshadowed by the dark dramatic flanks of Cader Idris, the giant’s chair – where those foolhardy enough to spend a night end up ‘dead, mad or a poet’. Further up the road, the sinister bulwark of Magnox North could be seen, blighting the beautiful coast. Crossing the cob into Porthmadog – the causeway linking it across the alluvial flats to the rest of Wales – I was treated to a stunning view of Snowdonia. After a long ride I had nearly made it! Unfortunately, fatigue (after a 5-6 hr ride) meant I made a wrong turning and precious minutes were squandered as I frantically tried to remember the way to Keith and Annie’s place – not the easiest place to find. It really is in the middle of nowhere, along unsigned roads, back of beyond. I pulled onto their land about 15 minutes late. I could hear the ceremony going on so I just rushed down the field where the guests had gathered – an impressive colourful circle of about a hundred ‘fairies’! It looked lovely, set against the backdrop of the mountains.
The couple were magnificent in their finery. I was worried I’d missed the tying of knot, but this was still to come. No vows were exchanged because this, it turns out, was a renewal of commitment – they had actually tied the knot eleven years ago, but this was a celebration of their love, a beautiful thing to see in this day and age. Afterwards there was a hearty buffet, followed by a puppet show version of Shakespeare’s fairy play
and a Welsh ceilidh (which didn’t sound that different from a Scottish one, apart from the odd song in Cymraeg): the dances were identical. Alas, my heart wasn’t into dancing (it felt like the last couple of weeks finally hit me at that point) but it was nice to see everyone enjoying themselves. There was some fire-twirling by Keith and Annie’s son, Rubin and his mate. Then there was more drinking, and much late night hilarity…until, tired from my journey, I had to go to bed. I collapsed in my tent and slept like an Ent.
It was strange just being a guest – a sharp contrast to the previous Saturday, where at Stanton Drew I was running the handfasting and performing. The feedback I received from Nigel and Sophie suggested it went down very well: ‘Thanks for a magical time – it was truly amazing. We’ve had loads of great feedback from folk praising your conduct of the ceremony and entertainment in the garden.’ This time, my services were not required and I felt somewhat at a loss. I would’ve happily chipped in a wee poem around the fire, but … there wasn’t one. Instead, there was just boozing and ribaldry in the marquee.
It was a beautiful occasion, everything had been done with such love – it was just a shame I wasn’t in a better mood to enjoy it. After funerals of two friends in two weeks I guess it was going to take longer than an evening, however enchanting,to shake my gloom.
Next morning, feeling ‘delicate’ I grabbed a cuppa and some makeshift breakfast (a slice of the wonderful waterfall wedding cake) and packed up the old steed and set off. It was noon, summer solstice, not that you would know it – the weather deciding to be grey and overcast. I stopped off at the beach to clear my head – feeling as flat as the sands.
I fuelled up in Porthmadog – thank god for coffee! ‘people petrol’– and hit the road. The rain hammered down to begin with – not very pleasant – but fortunately my waterproofs kept me dry. I had to keep my eye on the ball on those twisty roads in the wet, so I took it easy along the road to Bala, a biker’s paradise … when it’s dry!
When I reached Bala, I stopped to savour the glittering waters of Llyn Tegid, where I camped the previous summer. Then I parked up to visit the Gorsedd circle, where last year I had witnessed the proclamation of the Welsh National Eisteddfod, which will take place there this year. I decided to experience what it would feel like to, to step up onto the main stone and receive the highest accolade. The circle isn’t in the most inspiring of settings – hemmed in by a carpark and a light industrial estate, but it was still a thrill to stand there and raise the awen.
From the carpark I spotted for the first time at mound – a Norman motte – with a tree growing symbolically from its summit. I decided to check it out and ascended in my leathers. When I got to the top I savoured the view over the surrounding valleys, sitting my back against the trunk, letting its strength support me. Apparently, a popular place for local knitters – imagine the gossip shared – and later on, visitors would be charged a penny to visit it. With interest, I noted on the interpretation board that on the opposite side of the lake a castle said to belong to Gronw Pebr once stood: the man who assassinated Llew Llaw Gyffes, according to the legend in The Mabinogion. The bright solar hero who is shot down in his glory by his shadowy rival… on one level this seemed to represent the fact that the summer solstice is the longest day of the year, but also the point from when the days start getting shorter, as the dark half of the year reclaims its losses and eventually ‘defeats’ its rival (until he is reborn at midwinter and the cycle begins again). On a transpersonal level, it speaks of an unfortunate trait I’ve noticed in people: it is easy to take potshots at those who stand up and shine. It is easier to criticise than create – cynicism is the way of the coward. That is not to say one should be naively optimistic about everything – but to be positive, think positive, act positive, requires more effort and courage than the opposite. We can all wallow, and seek to keep others down if they aspire too high – for their excellence emphasises insecurities in some – whileas, I think by shining it gives others permission to do the same. I believe in empowering people, not putting them down.
From Bala, I followed a stunning B-road to Pistyll Rhaeadr – a joy to ride along. The sheer beauty of the landscape made me feel so much better. Nature really is the best medicine.
And then, finally, when it seemed like the higgedly-piggedly road would never run out, there it was, a white horse-tail of water cascading over the cliffs. I was last here 19 years ago, working on a film called The Runner (a dogdy student flick, a substandard John McTiernan effort ‘starring’ Harrison Ford’s brother). Then I was the gaffer’s assistant, helping to set up the lighting and tracks. First to arrive, last to leave. A freezing night shoot I seem to remember. And now I returned – a bard on a bike!
The place is sympathetically managed. There’s a marvellous note on their website:
‘The falls have not been ‘tamed’ with concrete, safety railings and warning signs, It is a natural in its beauty as God intended it to be!’
The guest house, Tan-y-Pistyll is used for retreats and I read with interest:
‘For generations this location has been held and revered in the hidden orders of druidic folklore as one of there most special and sacred locations. Called the Druids Bowl a place of inner inquiry of the sacred’
I climbed down to the waterfall, and beheld the majestic natural phenomenon. Unfortunately it was hard to get into a reverie when one is being bitten to death by midges, and so I retreated to the café for some warming soup. Afterwards, I found a little summer house, where I was a little safer from attack. Here I could gaze out across to the waterfall, at Lady Pistyll, as she’s called, and ‘channel’ this:
Voice of the Waterfall
From the source I descend,
cascading into your world,
breaking through all barriers
with grace, with joy.
White seam of inspiration,
let it pour through you
do not contain it, restrain it.
Be the flow, the portal of light.
There is so much love,
more than one alone can bear.
it must be shared.
My natural urge is to become
one with the ocean.
Life cannot be separate from life,
and yet it must be allowed
to stand in its own power,
to be fully itself,
a song singing to itself,
expressing its isness,
its soul note.
Kevan Manwaring, Pistyll Rhaeadr, Summer Solstice 2009
There’s a fantastic local legend, which I share below in full:
Dragon Falls – The Gwybr of Llanrhaeadr
Above the waterfall is a lake called Llyn Luncaws. The story goes that in this lake lived a serpent with wings who, once every few days, would fly down the valley to the village and there seize children, women or animals, taking them back to the lake to devour them.
The people of the village got together and, as nobody knew how to kill the gwybr, a number of them set off and walked over the mountains for many days to reach the wise woman of the hills. They told her the frightening story and she listened in silence. When they were finished, she bade them sleep whilst she thought on the problem.
Next morning, when the villagers awoke, they gathered round her and she explained to them in detail what they had to do when they got home. As soon as they arrived back the men got together and went to the blacksmith’s shop, where they worked all day and all night creating three enormous spiked collars of different sizes. The women worked together and gathered in all the linen in the village, sewed it together to make a huge sheet and dyed it blood-red.
In the afternoon of the second day, when all was ready, the whole village set off to the tumuli and great standing stone in the field at the foot of Rhos Brithin. Here the men dropped the three spiked collars over the pillar and the women wrapped the whole lot in the red linen. Then they set about building a circle of fire round the pillar.
The warning was given; the gwybr had been sighted on its way down the river. Quickly they lit the fire and hid amongst the bushes and hedges to watch. As it approached the village, the ring of fire attracted the great serpent and, as it flew closer, it thought it saw another dragon illuminated by the flickering flames. It roared with anger and threw itself to the attack, spearing its breast on the hidden spikes.
Again and again it attacked and each time the spikes drove deeper into its body until it dripped with blood and grew weaker. Eventually it could fight no more and collapsed bleeding and dying at the foot of the pillar.
The villagers, with the help of the wise woman of the hills, had outwitted the gwybr and once more the village was safe.
(from the official site website)
I reluctantly left the falls, feeling soothed by its energies and inspired to return. For now, I had to ride the dragon … south … back to my home, where a hot bath and a soft bed awaited.