Tag Archives: Bard on a bike

Feet on the Ground

We are never more than an extension of the ground on which we live’, Iain Sinclair, Edge of the Orison

Northampton, 24-26th February 2012

Last Saturday I went back up to my old home town to do a book-signing at Waterstones on Abington Street. This was for my book Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels (published by O Books) – part of a sixteen date tour that started last November.

Returning to my old stomping ground is always an emotive experience – even more so now that I have lost both my parents – but it felt good to be returning for something other than a funeral or morbid anniversary. To be returning as a visiting author giving a signing at a major High Street book store was quite special, to say the least. The only other time I had done something similar was when I returned to my old school Mereway Upper (as it was called then) to run a creative writing workshop with the pupils inspired by my children’s fantasy novel, The Sun Miners (written for my nephew Kane, when he was 12 years old). That was the first time I had come back on a motorbike, and the last time I saw my Dad – so the whole experience was charged with emotion for me.
Helping to support me in this was my dear friend Justin Porter, who arranged somewhere for me to crash the night before. We caught up, laughing about old times in a fabulous new pub, ‘Olde England’, done out like a medieval mead hall (complete with mead – which we had to try…).

Saturday morning the sun was blazing as I rode to the bookstore. I was told to bring the bike right into the front, and so I took it up Abington Street (now pedestrianised) and rolled it straight into the store, much to the astonishment of shoppers! The staff had made a nice display and I placed the bike in front of it, gleaming after a thorough polishing. Having the bike there proved a stroke (or two-stroke) of marketing genius, as it proved a good talking point, drawing all sort of folk over for a chat.

The very first person who came over was a lovely guy from the West of Ireland – a fellow biker, who, as it happened, knew my Dad’s best man, who lives in Gort! Small world! They hold a ‘bike church’ on a Sunday – going for ride-outs in the Galway area and beyond – and he said if I ever make it over to give him a shout. A call of adventure if ever there was one! I see a tour of Ireland coming on (he thought it would make a good follow-up to Turning the Wheel – publishers take note…). He bought a copy and gave me his contact details. A good start to the day!

Throughout the day family and friends dropped by – it was very special to see my old school -friend (and master illustrator) Steve Hambidge; as well as Justin; Julie, Roxi, Kane – the whole Manwaring clan! For a while we seemed to take over the store until (probably to the Manageress’ relief) they left. It was a busy day (best trading for over a year apparently) – I think the glorious sunshine must have helped to put everyone in a good mood.
The staff looked after me – and really made an effort to promote the talk (which makes all the difference). A photographer from the Chronicle and Echo came and I did some gurning at the camera. Who knows who might see it – and be surprised (or maybe not) to see my mug in the local rag?

Afterwards, I sat in Northampton’s lovely cobbled market square and savoured the last drops of sunlight over a well-earned cuppa. The town feels ‘on the up’ these days – certainly compared to
how it felt growing up there in the grim Eighties. It is great to see lots of creative activity especially – it seems Northampton has finally found its soul and celebrates its own ‘local distinctiveness’. Rather than seeming like ‘it all happens somewhere else’ folk like my friends Justin and Jimtom make things happen in the town – such as the monthly Raising the Awen open mic, and the annual Bardic Picnic. I had visited Delapre Abbey earlier in the day, and its looking well-maintained (last time I was up I helped with some volunteer conservation work).
Saturday night I caught up with my old partner in rhyme, Jimtom – the unsung Bard of Northampton (along with Justin). He told me about his exciting vision – it was great to see my friends following their dreams.

After seeing my sister for lunch I set off back across the Cotswolds in the afternoon sun – stopping off at a couple of scenic spots to do some sketching for my current project: Oxfordshire Folk Tales (a commission for The History Press). Next year I have another similar collection due in – about Northamptonshire – so I’ll be visiting the county a lot more this summer as I undertake field research. The elastic has certainly snapped (I feel no pull to return to live there) but I am learning to re-appreciated the Rose of the Shires.

There is something very grounding about connecting with one’s roots. It’s important to remember where you’ve come from however high you fly or far from the nest. And if anywhere could keep you down-to-earth it is the old shoe town, Northampton (home of the Cobblers football team – who often live up to their name; the local rugby team the Saints are far better, but perhaps misnamed!). So, I wear my DMs with pride – made in Northampton – they keep me in touch with my Sole Town.

From Dorset to Delapre

From Dorset to Delapre

3-5 June

Ola and I about to perform 'Tales of the Desert, Desire and the Red Thread' at the Wessex Gathering 2011

Over the weekend I rode down to take part in the Wessex Gathering – a lovely little camp held in the idyllic setting of Burnbake, a woodland campsite near Corfe Castle on the ‘Isle of Purbeck’ in deepest Dorset. This is the ninth year the event has been held, and the eighth I’ve attended (I took a year off last year after a seven year run – attending since it’s inception in 2003). I became their unofficial ‘resident bard’, traditionally performing on the Friday night, running a workshop Saturday, and hosting the Bardic Cabaret on the Sunday evening, which I instigated. It only takes a couple of times for something to become enshrined as a tradition – you have to be careful what you start!

I packed my ‘saddle bags’ and rode my metal horse down to Dorset through the hot afternoon heat. It looked like many people had the same idea, heading for the coast – but fortunately I was able to filter through alot of the jams (one advantage of being a biker!). By the time I arrived I was in need of a beer. I cracked open a can and setting about putting up my new tent, before finally chilling. It was good to be still – enjoying the green wall of trees surrounding the site, making it feel cut-off from the ‘real world’. A temporary village of tents dotted the field – with the marquee and Phil and Nina’s teepee marking the centre. The organisers welcomed me back (‘We’ve missed you!’).

A horn called us to the opening ceremony, when we gathered in a circle as the ‘wild man of the woods’ (Phil in his Herne the Hunter get-up, impressively clad in skins and antlers) called in the quarters and welcomed us all to the camp, laying down some very loose ground rules. Contributions to the programme were invited and was devised on the spot. Ola and I were down to perform later that evening after Damh the Bard, who traditionally kicks things off with a popular set in the marquee. By the time he had finished and folk trickled over to the main fire it was gone ten, but we had a fair sized, and very attentive crowd for our set of ‘Tales of the Desert, Desire and the Red Thread’. Ola and I ‘drummed up’ business, creating a sacred space by circling the fire and inviting the audience to gaze into the flames and imagine their desires and fears, using it transformative energy, which both destroys and creates. I started the set with a quote from Rumi’s great poem, ‘Story Water’, before telling the tale of the ‘Garden of Irem’. Ola followed with her self-penned tale, ‘The Firekeeper’s Dance’, from her new collection of short stories (The Firekeeper’s Daughter’). I accompanied her on the drum at times, as she inhabited the story and brought it alive with her body. It was great seeing her stand up and shine. Afterwards, I performed one of my favourite stories, ‘The Pilgrim of Love’. By the time we finished our set it was gone eleven – later than I would have liked, but it was magical, telling these tales around the campfire. As I relaxed with a well-earned pint in my pewter ‘wolf’ tankard, Cliff the Talesman, shared a funny story about a dragon. Others were invited to contribute but it was a hard act to follow – and it was pushing midnight by then. We retired – it had been a long day.

Saturday morning I gave a talk on the Way of Awen. I didn’t think 10am was early to start, but it clearly was for some – at first it looked like no one was going to show, but slowly people wandered over and in the end I had a nice group. I raised the awen with them and it seemed to flow in the discussion. Afterwards a participant came up to me with a poem she had written, inspired by the talk. A couple of people bought copies of my book, The Way of Awen, and it seemed to go down well.

In the afternoon, Ola, Paul and I went to Chapman’s Pool for a dip (all I could manage – it was freezing!) and a pint and pasty in the Square and Compass (one of my favourite pubs). We sat in the ‘Stone Age’ beer garden, amid the sculptures and Flintstones furniture, and enjoyed the ‘spirit of place’.

Later that evening, folk got ‘blinged’ up for the main ceremony – which centres on the fire labyrinth. The focus this year was the children, our future – who were invited to walk the ‘burning path’ first, watched on by their parents. Dressed as fairies and mini-knights, they looked very cute as they processed around, accompanied by the drums. Then the adults followed – though by this time, the fire labyrinth was more a ‘smoke maze’. Being held earlier (for the little ones) it wasn’t as dramatic as previous years – it’s certainly better in the dark, as the later fire show proved. We gathered round the main campfire for pyrotechnics and fire juggling. There was some leaping of the flames and more tales from Cliff. I had a lovely chat with fellow bard, Damh, and enjoyed listening to him play his songs in a ‘quietly raucous’ manner around a campfire later. I hit the sack, aware of my long ride the next day.

I awoke at the crack of dawn and struck camp – keen to get on the road. Although it was a shame to leave the Wessex Gathering early, I could not miss this important anniversary: my Mother’s birthday. We were to hold a memorial picnic for her at Delapre Abbey, and so I rode the 153 miles there in time to rendezvous with my sister and her kids. It was worth the effort, as we sat in the grove where we had scattered her ashes earlier that Spring and celebrated her life with champagne and memories. I read out the eulogy I had written for her for this occasion – a four page poem entitled ‘Mother Home’. Afterwards we decamped to the Golden Horse for a pint at the bar where a plaque has been put in memory of Dad. It felt like we had honoured both our parents – and connected as a family: for better or worse, the first ‘tribe’ one has.

The next morning I set off back to Stroud, via Milton Keynes – and a day of EMA marking. Down to Earth with a bump! By the time I reached home I had clocked up 350 miles. Stiff and saddle sore, I greatly enjoyed the long soak – Bard in a bath…

Mistletoe, Roses and Thorn

5-8 December

Mistletoe the Line

Yesterday decided to visit Tenbury Mistlefest – Britain’s only mistletoe festival. This came about when the old mistletoe auctions were under threat. They had taken place in Tenbury for a hundred years. Tenbury mistletoe is exported all over the country and is renowned for its quality.

I waited to see what the weather was like before committing to going. I checked the BBC weather on my laptop and the forecast looked good – at least for the first half of the day. I decided to risk it and seize the day – I chucked what I needed in a daysac, togged up and set off. The run up to Tenbury through the Welsh Marches was beautiful in the winter sun – I felt glad to be alive and living in such a lovely country. This part of the land feels very special – an artery of quintessential ‘Englishness’, deep England, ironically on the border of Wales – and originally of course belonging to Wales. I can see why Tolkien was so inspired by it – it did have a Tolkienesque quality to it. Deep wooded vales, timber-framed houses, mysterious knolls, brooding hills – old Brythonic bears, licking their wounds. I made good time on my Triumph Legend – the roads were clear and it was sunny and dry. The 85 miles passed in a pleasant couple of hours. It was only when I reached the Rose and Crown, just outside Tenbury – where the druids were gathering for the procession – that I realised I had left without my wallet! I had about a seven pound’s worth of change in my pocket – enough for lunch and not much else. I put this problem to one side – there wasn’t much I could do about it – as the procession was about to start. There was a brief briefing in the pub and I was designated ‘hop carrier’ in the ceremony – my role was to pass around a bottle of beer!

Rose and Crown carpark, Tenbury - the druids gather for the procession

About twenty of us set off from the Rose & Crown carpark – some in full robes. Suzanne from Cransfield Bardic Arts led the way, leading us in a chant – (‘All Hail the Mistletoe, On the sacred tree does grow, Our blessing we bestow, All upon the Mistletoe!’) which we sang in a half-hearted slightly embarrassed English way as we crossed the bridge from Shropshire to Worcestershire into the town. The high street was lined with stalls – a Christmas market to coincide with this, the biggest day in Tenbury’s calendar. It wasn’t exactly buzzing, but the atmosphere was congenial. We passed a couple playing medieval instruments, all dressed up. minstrels, Tenbury MistlefestThey attempted to join our procession, but we were walking too fast! In previous years, the mistletoe ceremony had taken place in the heart of the town, but this year it took place in the gardens, under a lime bearing mistletoe overlooking the river Teme, flowing vigorously after the heavy rains recently – very much like Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’. (Tenbury has been badly affected by the floods in recent years).

The previous Tuesday a small contingent of the local druids (Cornovii Tribe) went to the Mistletoe Auctions and performed a discreet ceremony incognito (plain clothes druids!). In other years this has been more visual – in full regalia – to varying degrees of reception. Some traders claimed the blessed mistletoe did especially well, whileas others disagreed!

Mistletoe Foundation

We gathered in a circle by the Mistletoe Foundation banner, as a small crowd of curious and amused public looked on. Suzanne had a gentle touch and conducted the ceremony with grace and humour. Although the celebrants had to read from scripts it was done from the heart, albeit in a slightly ramshackle way. I did my bit – the ale is normally passed in a horn, but because of health and safety they were forced to use plastic cups – but they were forgotten! And so I had to simply pass around the bottle of local ale (Hobson’s Town Crier), saying to people to drink at their own risk – all the druids did! Folk were asked if they wishes to say anything about mistletoe – I said: ‘Our ancestors called this All Heal – may it bring healing to all who need it, especially to the planet – and may it bring wisdom to those in Copenhagen who are deciding the fate of the planet.’ After we blessed the mistletoe with water, fire, hops and apple everyone was offered a sprig of mistletoe. At the climax of the ceremony, the mistletoe was cast into the Teme. Suzanne said after: ‘words cannot describe how it felt to see the mistletoe taken by the river. So I won’t try.’

We then wended our back to the Rose and Crown for lunch. It was nice to chat to the celebrants. Later that evening there was going to be an ‘eisteddfod’ in the lovely old pub, but unfortunately I had to give it a miss, as I had a certain rendezvous with a troubadour! Saying farewell to these new friends, I left the warm embrace of the pub, with its crackling fire and good beer and put out into the drizzle of the chilly afternoon. I went back into the town to look around. By now it was grey and miserable. It was about 2.30pm – the crowning of the mistletoe queen wasn’t until 4pm (I missed this, although I did catch a glimpse of her, hanging about with her mates, browsing the stalls). I didn’t fancy hanging around for a couple of hours in the rain, so I decided to head back and make the most of the remaining light. I rang my friend Miranda in Stroud to say I would be passing her place around 4ish and would it be okay to drop by for a cuppa … this turned out to be a wildly optimistic ETA and travel plan!

Lighting the Darkness

6th December

Speaking from Inner Roses - Irina Kuzminsky, Dancing with Dark Goddesses

Garden of Awen on Sunday at Chapel Arts Centre was a magical banquet of bardism in the heart of Bath. To celebrate the solsticey theme of ‘Lighting the Darkness’ I had gathered a constellation of shining talent: sublime wordsmiths from Stroud, a jazz duo and a Bard of Bath, a troubadour from Paris and a Russian ballet dancer/poet from Australia.

This was the second Garden I had organised with playwright, novelist and all round Mr Fix it, Svanur Gisli Thorkelsson, whose Icepax Productions made it look so professional.

After a much needed lazy Sunday chilling out at home with my guest Paul we made our way to the venue laden with musical instruments, books, CDs and stuff! Svanur was there, co-ordinating the sound checks and attending to final details – he’s a wizard!

I MCed the night, introducing each act, assisted by ‘the lady with the satin larynx’ Anna D. – who recited the odd arcadian quote to punctuate the proceedings. First up was Jay Ramsay, poet of the heart, and Hereward on percussion – performing a deeply felt set of beautiful poems. Next was fellow Fire Springer, Kirsty Hartsiotis, who did a rivetting version of Pandora’s Box. Master Duncan, 13th Bard of Bath, followed – with an impressive triptych of poetry and song. We ended the first half with jazz duo Venus Eleven. Tracey Kelly ethereal vocals, accompanied by some mellow guitar enchanted the audience.

After the break, we had extraordinary poet, Gabriel Millar – our third guest from Stroud. She delivered a wise and spell-binding set of poetry. And then we had Irina Kuzminsky, the Russian-emigre Australia ballet dancer/poet, who performed her blistering ‘Dancing with Dark Goddesses’ set: a performance of complete commitment, passion and technical brilliance. Hereward and Jay came back on for some drumming to warm us up for the final act, Paul Francis, Le Troubadour, who ended the evening with a splendid set of songs that took the audience to an absinthe-soaked Left Bank for an all but brief time. Paul ended with a personal request – his magnificent song, The Sailor and the Magician, which has a chorus of fine sentiment: ‘May the Peace in East; Peace in the South; Peace in the West by the river’s mouth; Peace in the North; Peace across the Land; Peace, Love and Harmony…‘ I’ll drink to that – and we did!

I ended the evening with a quote from Scottish novelist and playwright Sir James Matthew Barrie, who once said: ‘God gave us memories so that we might have Roses in December … ‘ I think all who came to the Garden that night left with a bouquet.

Head Gardener, Uncle Kevanya

Cutting the Thorn

8th December 2009

Today I attended the annual cutting of the Glastonbury Thorn at St Johns, on the High Street. The Glastonbury Thorn is said to be a cutting from the very tree that apocryphally sprouted from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea – Jesus’s uncle or brother (according to the vicar of St John’s, David) – plunged into the good soil of Somerset (traditionally on Wearyall Hill – appropriately named, as his journey’s end) when he made landfall here after his long voyage from the Holy Land, with or without a certain young messiah under his care (a new film is coming out that explores this, ‘Did Those Feet in Ancient Times?’) All rather dubious, but a wonderful notion – Glastonbury is obviously very proud of its its famous ‘roots’: a headline on a newstand read ‘Did Glastonbury Druids Teach the Young Jesus?’! And the brush with fame, albeit on a merely national level, continues. Every year a sprig of this tree is sent to the Queen, who has it on her Xmas table at Sandringham (apparently it is sometimes spotted in the background of her Christmas Day broadcast).

Cutting the Glastonbury Thorn, St Johns, 8 Dec 09 KM

Arriving in good time, I wandered up the High Street, browsing in the shop windows, until I was caught up in the ‘crocodile’ as hundreds of pupils from St John’s, St Benedict’s and St Dunstan’s converged in the grounds of the church, lining up in ranks of descending size in front of the Thorn. Local worthies were gathered in their finery. The town crier started proceedings in a typically stentorian manner, then Rev. David Mced the event, with contributions of cute songs from the local schools before the moment we had all been waiting for occurred. The ‘oldest pupil’ of St John’s cut the thorn, with a little assistance from the Town Crier and her mum. As the thorn sprig was held up, they were cheers – and the little girl, looking like a wee brownie in her pink woolly hat, beamed.

It was a heart-warming community event – a lovely way to mark the ‘first shoots’ of the festive season.

Here’s to a Merry Yule!

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.