Way of Awen weekend
Cae Mabon 22-25 April
Way back in 2004 I ran a series of ‘bardic development weekends’ at picturesque settings around the country – these led to The Bardic Handbook. Now, as its follow-up, The Way of Awen, is due to come out (in June from O Books) I decided to run a new event, partly based upon its contents. And so I organised a weekend up in North Wales in an inspiring location, Cae Mabon, an eco-retreat centre, which I first visited last Spring (though I had known about it for a number of years).
I have enjoyed visiting Wales around this time of year for a while – a chance to reconnect with ‘the Source’, which although is I believe ‘all around us’, it seems closer to the surface in the mountains. Blake as ever, put it best: ‘Great things are done when Men & Mountains meet/ This is not Done by Jostling in the Street.’
After 10 days of storytelling workshops in NE Italy I knew my cauldron would need replenishing – but I hadn’t counted on the difficulty of getting back! The volcano in Iceland erupted, closing all UK and many Continental airports – this made getting home a feat of Odyssian proportions (many are still struggling). I did not want to accept the consensus that it might not be feasible getting back until the weekend – for it would have meant my long-planned weekend in the mountains would have been cancelled. I managed, with the priceless help of my native-speaking hostess Silvana, to secure what seemed like the last train ticket out of Italy – all the trains from Milan had been booked until mid-week at least. I had to go via Austria and Switzerland, but would at least make it to Paris by Tuesday teatime, then I reckoned the train to Calais, and crossing over on the ferry as a foot passenger would be my best bet. Finding out anything was impossible – as websites had crashed, phonelines were jammed. Fortunately, I had a friend in Paris who was able to get me the ticket to Calais, so at least I knew I could reach the coast. I had been stuck in Paris he had a friend who could’ve put me up for 10 Euros a night (the cheapest bed in Paris!) which was nice to know. Thank goodness for friends. But I kept going, despite being in sore need of a bed after an 18hr train journey across Europe. I figured it would be better to queue up at Calais, even if it meant a dreary night at the terminal, then get there late the following day and risk not getting home until Wed evening. I was meant to leave for N Wales the next day and desperately needed a day to recover – a day of stillness! The gods of travel were with me and I got on a ferry at 00:25hrs Wed am (GMT+1), back in Blighty 01:00am, losing an hour on the way. Caught a bus to London – arriving, bleary-eyed, at 3.30am. No coaches or trains… shared a taxi to London Paddington and caught the first train out, though it was over-priced. It got me back to Bath by 7am – which was beautiful to behold in the early morning Sunday. Finally I stepped through my front door and collapsed – 33 hrs constant travelling, but it had been worth it. A day to recover – the weekend had been salvaged.
The next morning I prepared my handouts and finished packing, then set off at 1pm – arriving just after 6pm (couple of stops for petrol). It had been a lovely run up in the sun on my Triumph Legend. It felt good to be travelling under my own steam again – master of my destiny once more! Nothing worse than hanging around – feeling trapped. It had been, nevertheless, a powerful lesson – that I am still processing, not having had much chance to ‘catch up with my self’, for now I had a weekend of workshops to run. No rest for the bardic!
As I passed the dramatic threshold of Pen-y-Pass, at the apex of Llanberis Pass – the awesome glacial scar through the flanks of Snowdon – I felt a certain elation. Against all odds I had made it. I snaked carefully down the mountain road into Llanberis, taking care to take the right turning to Fachwen (last time I was here I took the wrong one, and ended up half-way up Snowdon, passing bemused walkers!). Llyn Padarn was on my right and I followed it around, crossing a small stone bridge and then the narrow lane that wound up into the foothills through massive Symplegades of granite. It feels like one long wrong-turning, but eventually the entrance to Cae Mabon is found – down steep hairpin bends, along a pot-holed track. I pulled into the ‘car park’, glad to see the smiling face of Mabon, beaming over the wooden gateway. Made it!
I amused myself with the theory that the place had been given its name, because that’s what you feel like saying when you finally find it: ‘Fachwen!’ It actually means ‘little, white’, after the stream that runs along the side of it – cascading down from a series of waterfalls.
I unloaded the bike and lugged my kit down to the ‘hobbit village’. In the hall four of the participants had arrived – five, with our special guest, baby Lily, who was to charm us all weekend with her cheekiness and amazing ability to pick up new words. Someone made me a mug of tea and I slumped into a chair. That night we took it easy – a couple of women from Glastonbury didn’t make it until late. They had the groceries. Fortunately, there was some stuff left over from the last group, complemented by some of Eric’s veggies, so we got a curry on the go and settled in. It was getting close to 9pm (arrival was 4-6pm) and we were getting worried. I managed to find the mobile number of one of them on an old email and we called them – they were just coming down the track. They were grateful for a plate of hot food when they arrived. By now it was about ten and I was certainly flagging. Eric asked me about the nature of Awen and I explained it as best I could in my semi-comatose state. After clearing up, some of us jumped in the hot tub, which Julia had fired up earlier, with the help of Ken – a Kiwi resident. It was wonderfully soothing – apart from gashing my finger as I leapt into the icy mountain stream, shouting ‘Fachwen!’ Eric joined us, soaking like some Celtic king in a cauldron. The stars glittered and the waxing moon shone through the tangled trees. The heated water and sound of the stream helped smooth away the rigours of the journey. It was time for bed and a good night’s sleep.
In the morning, after breakfast, I outlined the day and asked for any suggestions/contributions. I left some space in the programme for either free time or extra workshops offered by members of the group. Ola kicked things off with an African dance workshop. This got us warmed up for my Poetry in Motion workshop – working through the animals of the Taliesin story, which I told – we used movement to inspire poetry. Before each ‘dance’ I got someone to read out one of the animal poems from The Taliesin Soliloquies I wrote as part of The Way of Awen book. This triggered individual responses – as each participant imagined themselves inhabiting respective animal’s consciousness. They moved around the site, between the standing stones and trees, or around the stream – communing with different elements. The exercise seemed to work very well and produced some excellent poetry – fresh and sinuous, visceral and full of vitality.
After lunch I took people on a walk up to the waterfall and viewpoint. It was a lovely sunny afternoon. We napped in site of Snowdon, overlooking Llanberis and Llyn Padarn. Alas, on the way back Wayland felt weak and had to be helped every step of the way. I had to carry Lily for Liz – she fell asleep on my shoulders, her snoring becoming ‘bubbling’, as she dripped snot on me! Together, we eventually got back – Liz coming to pick us up in the car after we had to do a large detour to avoid the stone steps Wayland struggled with. It was a relief to get back and have a cup of tea! I finished off my poetry workshop with a session on remembering and performing poetry, which seemed to go down well. Folk spent some time learning poems while dinner was being prepared. I ran through Dragon Dance – my epic Praise Song to Albion – but I was so tired I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Even though I hadn’t done it for many months – since last summer? – most of the 14 pages came back to me. I was going to have another go after dinner, but decided to do a classic poem closer to where I was ‘at’: CP Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’.
I got the fire going in the roundhouse and we gathered there around nine. I started things with the awen, then my poem Ithaka. We took turns to share a poem, song or story. It went well, but I was very tired – and despite being able to do WB Yeats’ ‘The Celtic Twilight’ off the top of my head, I suffered bardic droop when it came to doing my flower maiden poem, which is linguistically tricky. By then the wine and fatigue had taken its toll and I retired.
Saturday we were blessed with even better weather. Today I ran my ‘Climbing the Beanstalk’ workshop in the morning – it culminated in some excellent performances. My participants managing to learn and perform (well) a Greek Myth in 2 hrs. After lunch there was a faerie card talk/workshop from Amanda; a fascinating talk on Iron Age archaeology from Julia, a phD student; then I led a brief brainstorming discussion on what kind of celebration/ceremony we wanted to end the weekend with. After dinner, we had another session in the roundhouse, ending early so we could enjoy the hot-tub again.
Sunday we prepared for the ceremony after breakfast – practising chants, movements, songs, getting face-painted – it was a great team effort. I suggested a structure based on the 3 Cauldrons we had been working with over the weekend – connected to the body, heart and spirit. We would process between the three circles of the roundhouse, labyrinth and fire circle with percussion and singing, honouring the divine masculine, the divine feminine and the divine child on the way. It flowed beautifully and ‘felt right’ – in the moment, responding to the spirit of place and the awen. Everyone had a chance to contribute something, to shine, and we did – as Eric pointed out – in our lovely facepaint from Amanda, seeming ‘more’ ourselves somehow. We ended in good spirits, sharing a final lunch – a much-welcome carrot and coriander soup thawing us out and bringing us back into our bodies. We had self-catered over the weekend – everyone had pitched in – and we enjoyed some lovely meals. This was part of the spirit of the weekend – a team effort. Everybody contributing ‘ingredients’ to the cauldron… Everyone had a talent, a gift, knowledge and skills to share. We all contributed to the bigger pattern.
The aim of the weekend was for participants to untap their creativity – to express the awen in whatever way it manifested – and through dance, poetry, storytelling, singing, cookery, face-painting, friendship, ceremony and speaking from the heart – it certainly did that.
After, we tidied up and had a few team photos before folk scattered to the wind. The atmosphere was positive. It seems the weekend was a success – phew! – although it took its toll on me… Coming after ten days’ of storytelling workshops in Italy, followed by five days getting home, then a long ride here, I was not going to be at my best (if the volcano hadn’t shut down the airports I would have had a week between the two to recover). I spent most of the weekend trying to keep up my energy levels and positivity, but inevitably the exhaustion manifested in a certain crabbiness and eventually, a short fuse. The intention of the weekend was (for me) to ‘replenish the cauldron’ but it felt like it had ‘depleted the cauldron’, in my case, anyway. This is the price, I guess, for running events – I had to hold the space and carry the group for the weekend, attending to their needs, personalities and peccadilloes (and they mine). It’s hard to fully relax in such circumstances, even though the place is beautiful and I did have ‘moments’ (like sitting by the lake, simply watching the glittering water) but I wasn’t able to relax sufficiently to get into the creative space I was helping people to all weekend. Ironically, I was the only one for whom the awen didn’t flow over the weekend – but, I am only human. I had burnt out, perhaps unsurprisingly, after my intense few days (3 weeks – I left for Italy on 6th April). I needed to stop, to be still, to be silent – for several days (after many days of talking and teaching I was ‘worded’ out). I was glad to hit the road and its solitude for a while. As a left Cae Mabon I paused by Llyn Padarn, reading the poem plaque by Gillian Clarke about Snowdon (‘But for how long?’) and taking in the view. It is an awe-inspiring place. I hoped to take a little bit of its awen back with me. ‘Holding the dream’ I set off. The ride home wasn’t as pleasant – dodgy dense fog crossing the hairy roads of Snowdonia, then driving rain along the Welsh Marches – but it was good to be finally going home.