Tag Archives: Cornwall

Walking with a King

It is a dream I have…

(Merlin, Excalibur, Boorman, 1981)

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Tintagel at dusk, K. Manwaring, 1 September 2017

I have just returned from undertaking a 60-odd mile walk in Cornwall on the trail of King Arthur. As I sit here nursing my blisters and aching bones (carrying a full pack – camping along the way – can be punishing) I reflect upon why I embarked upon such an apparently foolhardy quest… At times it certainly felt so as I traipsed along B-roads in the rain, facing oncoming traffic when I was left with no other choice than to take the metalled backlanes. I experienced the worst rain ever on one of my long distance walks – beating even the Highlands – a day of perpetual heavy deluge that left everything soaked and my spirits sapped. And I had to negotiate the ridiculous fastnesses of large estates with ‘private roads’ which on the OS map look just like farm tracks (in Scotland the access laws are far more lenient).

Yet despite all of that there were breaks in the cloud – glorious mornings overlooking dramatic coves, the light sublime on silver and pewter seas, sun-dappled hollow lanes and secret paths, charming villages and harbours, and of course the legend-soaked landmarks. And yet even that may not have warranted such exertion – I had visited most of the ‘Arthur’ sites before (Tintagel; Castle Dore; Tristan stone) and there are certainly easier ways of getting to them, but that would have been missing the point – for my intent was to create a kind of ‘pilgrimage’ route. And as any pilgrim knows, the greater the effort, the greater the effect – the epiphany is direct relation to the ardour of the journey. To rock up on an air-con coach to a site, alight, take a few selfies, buy a bit of tourist tat, shove an ice-cream in your face and wobble on board again – bucket list item ticked, but not truly seen, heard, felt or savoured – is not the same experience as someone who has arrived at the site either on foot, on push-bike or on horse-back. Yes, there’s a place for all kinds of visitor – not everyone is mobile and these places are for all (as long as the tourism doesn’t destroy them).

But I know which one I prefer.

As an example, I have visited Avebury stone circle many times, but the instance that was most impactful was when I had walked there over 4 days along the Ridgeway – arriving with something analogous to the consciousness of a Neolithic pilgrim. The effect was euphoric (I’m sure those who have undertaken the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu feel the same). So, I’ve visited most of the sites on this trip recently (some this year) but this was qualitatively different. I was going it alone, under my own steam, working out the route as I went (rather than following an established trail). I like the creative challenge of finding links between places. There is a narrative there in the landscape waiting for us to notice it.

Yet, why King Arthur?

I was obsessed with all things Arthurian in my early twenties – and that compelled to go on pilgrimage to Glastonbury and other sites associated with his legend. And in my early thirties I co-created and performed in a 2 hour show called ‘Arthur’s Dream’ with Fire Springs. And in my early forties I wrote my Arthurian novel, a dystopian vision of an alternative Britain (This Fearful Tempest). But these waves of Arthurian fever are often followed by Arthurian fatigue. My reference books lay on their shelves neglected.

And now … all of that seems so remote, belonging to a more innocent time (remember the ‘New Age’ and the optimism that built up towards the Millennium?). Now we live in times which are far more overtly cynical, dangerous and wilfully antagonistic to intellectual discourse, liberal values, religious and ethnic tolerance, gender equality and human rights. Don’t we have a duty to engage with that, rather than running off physically or mentally, creating castles in the air, losing ourselves in fantasy or the nostalgia of the past? Perhaps, but burn out reduces the capacity to be effective in any capacity, so breaks, holidays, retreats, etc, are essential. Also, we are most effective when using our strengths and talents – in my case, and in the case of many of my friends, that’s creatively. The ‘war’ we’re embroiled – whether we like it or not – is a war of ideas that takes place in hearts and minds. That is where toxic or beneficial concepts flower or whither, take root, prosper or die.

Ideas, as they say, are bullet-proof.

One idea that has survived the centuries is that of Camelot (e.g. JFK’s use of it in the early 60s). I am not personally interested in whether King Arthur actually existed or not – trying to prove that he was this or that person, lived here or there … I think that’s missing the point.  If a 6th Century battle-chief existed called ‘Arthur’ (Arturo, Artus …) then he would have been a very different leader than the one rendered in the courtly romances, as would have been his ‘knights’. The Arthur of the early Celtic tales gives us a glimmer, perhaps – he’s far less sympathetic (Trystan and Isseult), more pro-active (The Spoils of Annwn), and often deep in gore (The Celtic Triads). Lorna Smithers listing of his ‘war-crimes’ (see her provocative poem, ‘Wanted’, on her blog Signposts in the Mists) is a sobering counter-spell to the Medieval glamour which has lingered ever since, the fairy dust that will not fade – but is perhaps one extreme of a spectrum, with the numerous awful movie versions at the other end (John Boorman’s Excalibur being the shining exception) ‘truth’ being somewhere in the middle.

Yet there is an Arthur for all of us – he is a malleable construct that changes through the decades. He epitomized one thing for the Victorians (the noble cuckold; the tragic martyr torn between lofty ideals and earthly desires, skeletons in the cupboard and Christian imperialism); another for the Post-War generation (a dream of unity, however flawed); another for the Counter-Culture (Merlin as the original Gandalf; Mordred as the rebellious anti-hero); another for the New Age (feminist revisionist treatments reappraising the role of women in the Arthuriad and problematizing the patriarchal hierarchy of it all). Arthur ‘exists’ as a cultural meme, as a literary figure, as an ideal – and it is the latter that most engages me at present.

For despite his questionable reputation and historical status, Arthur represents the archetype of Kingship. And we are living in an age suffering from the Shadow of that – we suffer under the yoke of so many bad leaders. I am not a Royalist, but I am no anarchist either. We need good leadership now more than ever – both from within and without. It would be naive to assume that if we just ‘sorted ourselves out’ the world would be okay – but it’s a place to start from. Self-actualisation can happen in many ways. Healthy communities are naturally ennobling and mutually empowering, so the process can begin on your doorstep.

But sometimes we need a more intense experience to ‘shift’ things.

My hope in creating a modern pilgrimage route (and this is only the very earliest stages of  long-term project) is that it could be used for rites-of-passage (for all  genders and ages), for leadership training, for the continuation of a living oral tradition (storytelling, poetry and singing along the route), the cultivation of art trails, the promoting of local businesses, rural regeneration, and so forth. Such an endeavour will only come about through collaboration, community involvement, fundraising and sponsorship. To accomplish such a dream will require inspired leadership. But for now – I’ve had the vision, taken the first step (in fact quite a few) and I’ve had a taste of what it feels like to walk along the mythways of Arthur.

 

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Coast to Coast: walking from North to South Cornwall. The view near Polperro, 5 September 2017

 

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 7 September 2017

 

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Song of the Windsmith

‘I am the windsmith … I summon the air…’

Song of the Windsmith Premiere, Castle of the Muses, Scotland, Autumn Equinox 2012

Song of the Windsmith Premiere, Castle of the Muses, Scotland, Autumn Equinox 2012

A year ago, sitting on a cliff overlooking the Severn Bridge with my friend James Hollingsworth, we sketched out a show based upon my series of novels, The Windsmith Elegy. By a bonfire, we watched the sun set over the Welsh hills – it was the Spring Equinox. The awen flowed and ideas fell into place – using nine bones (boiled down from a five volume, half a million word novel series) we blocked out an outline, a story arc, around which songs (from James’ repertoire) would be woven. A year on and we have just come back from the sixth performance of Song of the Windsmith – the multi-media show which resulted in that initial equinoctial brainstorm. As the project developed other artists came on board – Jonathan Hayter, a shadow-puppeteer from Cornwall; Miriam Schafer, a belly-dancer from Munich; and Rob Goodman, actor and director from London. Each artist brought their own talent, experience and ideas; it was exciting seeing how they re-interpreted the Windsmith story in their own way. They took the initial inspiration and danced with it – in from these component parts we fashioned an ‘insane machine’ of Edwardian fantasy. Thus was born The Steampunk Theatre Company – our DIY, Heath Robinsonesque approach mutating my sometimes fey ‘visionary epic’ intp the trendy subgenre of Science Fiction, Steampunk (in brief, the past’s vision of the future). Suddenly we were as cool as Dr Who! Adopting a slightly whimsical approach, our motto became:

‘Backwards into the Future!’

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The Lit’n’Roll show based upon The Windsmith Elegy – Song of the Windsmith – was launched at the Castle of the Muse, Argyle, Scotland, on 22nd September. James Hollingsworth & Kevan Manwaring, co-founders of The Steampunk Theatre Company, took the high road to the wilds of Scotland to perform a special preview of the show to a select audience of international guests. The response was overwhelmingly favourable. Here’s a review by Lilian Helen Brzoska

These guys are BRILLIANT Bardic Performers. James Hollingsworth is on the guitar, a wizard of flying fingers and glorious tones. He also sings spectacularly well. Kevan Manwaring’s ” Song of the Windsmith” is a perfect winged chariot for them both to fly, lifting through many spheres and dropping to the Earth’s Core with adept aplomb and engaged Heart energy. Kevan is a beautiful Being with great acting talent and a wisdom far deeper and wider than his youthful surface might predict, should you be hooked on looks. They are both beautiful to behold and deeply moving as they perform this mythic treat and mystical performance power-sharing to awaken the soul of each listener, each seer, each brother and sister Bard. If you get a chance to experience a performance of ” The Windsmith ” grab the tickets with both hands and take along your whole family. Your will all hear a very fine story told with Light, Love and Honesty. Teenage sons and daughters, will find older brothers with whom to explore the inner reaches of the Human Condition with warmth, political awareness and Eco-Centric Wisdom.

Visit http://www.educationaid.net for information about ongoing events at the International Institute of Peace Studies and Global Philosophy.

Watch some of the actual performance on Youtube here

After the premiere, we soared in our steam airship to the southern ‘hemisphere’ of the United Kingdoms. Anchoring our zeppelin off St Michael’s Mount, we performed at the Acorn, Penzance – this time joined by  ‘Ze Baron’, aka Jonathan Hayter, shadow-puppeteer extraordinaire – who VJed his lightbox puppetry with digital animation. Wunderbar!

Ze Baron joins us at the Acorn gig, Penzance.

Ze Baron joins us at the Acorn gig, Penzance.

A show in my home town of Stroud was essential – at Open House Hall. In the audience was Kim Kenny, from Theatre Gloucestershire, who said afterwards:

‘Surprising and refreshing – something I would like to see more of… I loved the music and how it underscored your powerful storytelling. The visual images too added another dimension.’ (Kim Kenny, Theatre Gloucestershire)

As a result, we took part in a Made in Gloucestershire showcase at the Cheltenham Everyman in early Feb. It was perhaps too much for the nice folk of Cheltenham HQ. We realised it was for a niche audience, ie one with imagination!

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We ended the year with a performance for the Wessex Research Group in Totnes, organised (I use the term loosely) by our friend Jeffrey Gale. We hibernated over the winter, to rejuvernate our bardic batteries, before hitting the road last week for a very special homecoming gig on the Spring Equinox in Northampton – Kevan’s old home town – at a fab monthly bardic night hosted by my old partners in rhyme Justin Thyme and Jimtom. It was most touching to have some old friends in the crowd – folk I hadn’t seen for years. Out of all the audiences we’ve had so far, this lot really got it.

Windsmiths of Equinoxes Past

Windsmiths of Equinoxes Past

Feedback from Raising the Awen, Northampton Labour Club, 20th March

‘music was superb, brilliant voice … was really moved by 2 sections, the love/bit/section made my eyes fill’

‘Brilliant, fantastic storytelling and music, very animated and original’

‘fabulous meandering monologue and mystical marvellous music, more more more!!!’

‘Interesting, and the music was great … when the music started I was happily surprised, so thank you.’

‘I liked the songs reminded me of The Who. Can see the whole thing being made into a bigger production with lots of visual. A very professional performance.’

‘Top quality. Excellent music and storyline.’

‘They can come again pleeeeaaaassse!!!???’ twice!

‘Swept away by the the words, music and song.

‘A magical story so perfectly musicated.’

‘Guitar Genius’

Waterstones goes Steampunk!

Waterstones goes Steampunk!

On the Saturday after (23rd March) I did a book-signing in Waterstones, Northampton. This was part of a fabulous Steampunk Season, which involves a month of related author events. The nice in-house events team did do some brilliant posters. Despite the lovely signage, footfall was low – kaiboshed by unexpected cold-snap. Wintry easterlies brought snow and ice – which made the ride home extremely challenging. Nearly got frostbite (I couldn’t move my hands at one point – not good on a bike!). It’s hard being a bard…

The Windsmith Elegy launch, Waterstones Northampton, 23 March 2013

The Windsmith Elegy launch, Waterstones Northampton, 23 March 2013

The Signs are out there...

The Signs are out there…

We have one more show scheduled (so far) in the Bath Fringe, June 9th – at a masonic hall! (Old Theatre Royal, Bath). After this, who knows where the windsmiths will blow next…? There is a plan to record the show for posterity – and create a CD or DVD of it. The O2 Arena gig will have to wait until we have finished making holograms of ourselves. Oo-lllaaaa!!!!

I’ll leave you with the words of our elusive Steampunk propheteer, Bartholomew Copperpipe:

‘Yesterday’s future is ours!’

Dragon Lines

6-13 April

Over the Easter break Jenni and I spent a week staying in a yurt on an organic smallholding on the Roseland Peninsula, South Cornwall. Cotna, just down from the sleepy village of Gorran Churchtown, is nestled in an L-shaped valley which gave it its original name ‘Crookcorner’. Dave and Sara, the owners, moved in five years ago and have transformed the 14 acres – which now boast a wind-turbine, polytunnels full of leafy veg, free-range chickens, woodland, solar panels, compost loos and a rather lovely straw-bale house. We were first visitors to stay in their yurt, sitting in its own field – separated by its twin by a stream and a line of recently planted willow. With a log burner and lots of homely touches, it was cosy in the evenings. We ate outside alot and enjoyed sunsets, a vast field of stars, a full moon, dawn choruses, and deep peace. At night, the only disturbance was the conversation of owls and the odd visit from Ziggy – the dribbling long-haired cat.

In the daytime we enjoyed some excellent coastal walks (the coastal path could be reached along a charming winding path – 2 miles to Porthmellon). Amid the pasties, pints and piskies, one of the highlights was a walk around the headlands of St Antony and Dodman Point – the latter possibly deriving its name from an old word for dowser or geomancer (a ‘dodman’ was a country name for a snail – it’s horns like the siting poles of the surveyor – perhaps glimpsed in the staves of the Long Man of Wilmington).  In the late Eighties, local ‘dodmen’ Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller discover the Michael and Mary Line – a substantial energy ‘pathway’ running up the southwest peninsula diagonally across England – the two alternating streams weaving in and out like a vast landscape caduceus… or the Rainbow Serpent of Albion. They recorded their findings in their New Age classic, The Sun and the Serpent – which even spawned a TV show, so media-trendy all that stuff was at the time. The fickle gaze of fashion moves on – and last year’s ‘cat’s pyjamas’ are sloughed like snake skin.

Yet the old leys and ways remain – just below the surface – waiting for the curious seeker to stumble upon them, like an ancient sword half-buried in a peat-bog. In Cornwall, this ancient magic feels close to the surface still. I’ve felt it every time I’ve visited – and books like The Little Country, an enchanting novel by the bardically-inclined Canadian author Charles de Lint – conjure it up for me from afar.

I dowse these ‘dragon lines’ in my own way, with the dowsing rod of my pen and my imagination – tuning into the genius loci wherever I visit and letting the awen come through me. In 2004 I was commissioned to write a poem for a dance piece by artist Beth Townley – this became my epic praise-song to Albion, Dragon Dance. I have been performing this in situ at locations around the country – north, south, east and west – as my way of giving thanks back to the land that has born and nurtured me. On the last day of our trip (an auspicious Friday 13th) we stopped off at the Hurlers stone circle on a suitably mist-erious Bodmin Moor – here I recited the Cornwall section of the poem: quite a challenge in lashing, freezing rain! We endured this in good humour, before returning gratefully to the shelter of the car.

Here it is…

Kernow

In the heat of the day,
in the eye of light,
in the land of noon,
where the sea is night.

A land of glittering granite,
sun beat-beating down,
a blacksmith’s hammer on anvil,
melting us with furnace heat.

The silent longevity of fogou and quoit
marking time. Neolithic sundials –
follow their shadow over moor and shore…
Tintagel to Men-an-Tol,
rag-tree temple, Madron’s well.
St Michael’s Mount to St Nectan’s Glen
Zennor to Lamorna, this narrow peninsula –

Twrch Trwyth’s road,
where legend disappeared beneath the waves,
comb and scissors gleaming between bristles,
like church pew mermaid with comb and mirror.
Ageless Mabon snatching success
from the ears of defeat,
before vanishing too … like Arthur …  into the mist.

The dying sun journeying beyond, to the sunken land.
Lyonesse of the endless waves, the Fortunate Isles,
of beacon towers,  inkdust sand, the semaphor of sails.
Deadly Sillina, adorned with the riches of shipwrecks,
the prayers of fishermen, the tears of fishwives.

Passion fire, soul flame yearning,
in the cauldron love is burning.
The spark on the kindling,
the flint and the tinder,
fire friend, stolen power,
seize the spear of the sun,
Long as the day, shadowbright,
give us your light,
give us your light.
give us your light,
so we may do what is right.

Between the earth and the air,
between the fire and the water,
the spirit waits at the centre,
the spirit waits at the centre.

Dance the dragon,
let the dragon dance me.
Biting the tail of infinity.

from Dragon Dance – Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2004

On Monday, 23rd April – which is of course St George’s Day (as well as The Bard’s birth-and-death day) – I’ll be performing in a show with my fellow members of Fire Springs entitled ‘Spirits of Place’ at the enchanting Hawkwood College (which has its own share of genius loci) on the outskirts of Stroud. We’ll be sharing a selection of stories from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire – taken from our new collections published by The History Press. Mine isn’t due out until the end of the year, but while in Cornwall I was editing the manuscript and rehearsing the tales – so it felt like I had a little bit of the county with me. It has it’s fair share of dragon tales…

Whatever you think of St George (England’s patron saint – all the way from Cappadocia, Turkey…) why not raise a glass to the dragons of Albion on Monday – may they continue to live on, in legend at least.

Raising the May

Padstow May Day

Obby Oss and Teaser at Padstow by K. Manwaring 01.05.10

There is no better place to be in England on May Day then Padstow in North Cornwall, where every May 1st for many years (no one knows exactly how long it has been celebrated here, but it is probably a couple of centuries at the least) visitors are greeted with a spectacle both exotic and quintessentially English – locals dressed all in white, and either red or blue neckerchiefs and sashes, process through the streets following what is called either the Old Oss (red) or the Peace Oss (blue) – virtually indistinguishable to all but the trained eye –  both manned by a frisky local wearing a round black skirt of waterproof material topped by a black pointed head-dress decorated in an African style, who wheels and jigs through the packed crowds, lured on by a ‘teaser – usually a local girl wielding a phallic ‘bladder-stick’, accompanied by a hypnotic drum-beat, accordions, whistles and singing. The atmosphere is at the very least merry – although at times it becomes wildly unBritish, something you might see in a Mediterranean religious street festival or one in say India. The narrow streets of the small fishing village are festooned with foliage and flags. There’s a fun fair and the pubs do a roaring trade. Thousands of visitors descend, causing the tiny village to gridlock. Yet the ambience remains pleasant. After the winter, especially a hard one like we’ve had this year, there’s a palpable sense of ‘easing off’ as we celebrate the start of the summer. The Silly Season starts here! Such events are a real boost to the local economy and this is often an overlooked reason why these ‘traditions’ start – medieval monks weren’t averse to ‘discovering’ some dodgy relics to boost their coffers; and modern enterprising pagans are no different, ‘reviving’ traditions – always ancient and mysterious in origin. A whiff of antiquity mixed with the weird always seems to go down well. It’s amazing what you can conjure up. A traveller was hawking that gypsy standard, ‘lucky heather’, which he promoted as ‘Cornish viagra’. In a way, Padstow May Day is a kind of economic variant – helping to resurrect the dormant ‘fertility god’, Cash Flow.

The last and only other time I had made it to Padstow was in 1997 – on the eve of a Labour landslide. I had visited it with my new friend from Bath – Steve – and I have a shot of him, running off down the road with a Tory placard. A number of these kept us warm at night as we camped on the beach. Thirteen years later and it feels like full circle – we’re on the eve of another general election and it looks like Labour is on its way out, the euphoria of their victory, when Tony Blair seemed like the Britain’s new hope, long gone in the squalid aftermath of a second Gulf War; and the gloom of the Broon Years.

Then, Padstow seemed to capture the ‘feel good’ factor that was sweeping the country. This time – who knows? A sense that, if the country is going down the tubes, let’s party while we can?

This time, I was picked up from my flat on Bathwick Hill – where I had been living ten years to the day (moved in on the first of May 2000) by my friend Kevin in his ‘Panzer’, a 1985 convertible Mercedes Benz. I helped him take the hard roof off the day before and we rode down ‘topless’ – hair blowing in the wind. As we left Bath early Saturday morning Kevin played Maddy Prior’s Padstow song on his car stereo – the song that had started it all for him. It blasted out across Combe Down and we sang along to the (until then) quiet, empty streets, probably waking up half the neighbourhood. We were in good spirits – it was great to be setting off on an early May morning, the energy not only of the day, but the whole of summer, the whole of awakening nature, behind us.

My skipper took the scenic route, over the Mendips via Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury – where they were many celebrations going on over the weekend. No doubt folk were up the Tor or in Chalice Well – we saw some likely suspects dressed in robes, obviously on their way home for breakfast after greeting the dawn. A couple of years ago I had leapt the Bel-fire in the field above Chalice Well and helped raise the May-pole. It’s a great place to celebrate it, but I was glad to be going Cornwall today.

We cruised across the Somerset Levels, crossing the M5, running the gauntlet of Taunton and out the other side – Kevin decided on a whim to go ‘cross-country’ and we ended up in some obscure backroads. But it turned out good in the end – more by luck than anything, we managed to find a pretty route along a B-road via Wiveliscombe, Bampton and other lovely places hidden within the inviting folds of Devon.

We started to fantasize about cream teas and knew it was time to stop for a break – having been on the road for nearly 3 hours.

In desperation we came off the Atlantic Highway, thinking we could find sustenance in Clovelly – much in need after a cuppa, after the weather turned damp and chilly. Guided by insistent signs, we parked and found ourselves in a surreal complex – a kind of tourist Auschwitz where new arrivals are ‘processed’. It turned out you had to pay to get into the honeypot village – all we wanted was a cuppa. We reassured the woman at the counter that we didn’t want to visit the village, just the cafe. There was a bizarre deal at the cafe where it cost more to have a straight black coffee, than a latte. The girl at the counter was unable to explain the logic of this – she was ‘only following orders’.

A little recuperated, on we went – eager not to miss the celebrations. We arrived around midday and parked up in the campsite a ‘couple of miles’ from the village as Kevin somewhat euphemistically put it. Five miles later, dying for a pint, we made it into Padstow – it seemed like all the celebrants were leaving – but it was just the ‘morning shift’ breaking for lunch. The next dance was at 2pm – time for a much-needed pint and pasty. We sat on the quayside, amongst the crowds and buntinged boats and tucked in. We had made it!

We went to see the Peace Oss at 2pm – although it was impossible to get knew the institute where it ‘lived’. My heart sank, thinking I was not going to be able to see it properly – I didn’t remember it being that busy 13 years ago, but Padstow is a changed place. Rick Stein has set up shop and the Yuppies have moved in. It has become somewhat gentrified as of late – going by the shops and some of the crowd. But there was still an excellent atmosphere.

We tagged along with the Peace Oss procession as it wended its way up the ‘high street’ towards St Petroc’s church – it became easier the see it the further it went as the hills thinned out the crowds. Finally, some decent photo-opportunities! We followed it into the church – I was told by a bullish Blue Oss followed not to bring my pint into the hallowed place – but a frollicking pagan fertility icon was obviously okay. The drums sounded extraordinary in the church – as though inside a long barrow. It was great to see the church come alive with the drumming, dancing and merry crowds.

Out the other side it went – and back down into town, for a while. We left it as it seemed to ‘die’ halfway up a little side street – walking back towards the Ship, where we met up with Kevin’s old university buddy, Steve and his family. More pints were procured and downed – quaffable local ale, Doom Bar was a popular choice. Not much of that to be had in Egypt, so I made the most of it. Kevin’s biker buddies, John and Aaron, rocked up – a little tender from a lock-in at the Tintagel Arms the night before. They had ridden across from Sussex on their Harleys – an impressive ride. We took a stroll to the quayside and enjoyed the sites, including a fine wooden figurehead on a ship with impressive curves. When you start finding carpentry erotic, you know you are in desperate need of female company! But I had other priorities at that point…

I needed a cup of tea desperately – it was all catching up with me (the Italian odyssey; workshop in Wales; a week’s marking; an early start and long car drive). I found a cafe and gratefully took a seat. Ended up chatting with a local lady – asking her about her colours: ‘How do you become a follower of the red or blue Oss?’ I wanted to know – ‘You are born into it,’ she explained – her grandfather, then father had been Old Oss stock and, thus, so was she. And her children and grandchildren. It seems an accident of birth then, which creates this friendly schism. The Peace, or Temperance Oss was started after the Second World War – so perhaps belonging to that indicates ‘incomers’, as opposed to old Padstownians. The woman enthused about it, saying how ‘It’s a kind of freedom,’ until that is the politcally-correct brigade (anathema of Daily Mail readers ) come along and spoil it, which they’ve already done with the dubiously named ‘Darkie Day’, when Padstow’s temporary black population used to be celebrated, on their annual day off. She became increasingly racist in her opinions after that – what Gordon Brown would call ‘a bigoted woman’, but not to her face. ‘Are you one of those Liberalites?’ she asked, sensing my disquiet with her loathsome opinions about Asylum Seekers and so forth. This somewhat tainted my impression of events – which now looked, in the light of this conversation, to be a thinly-disguised white power demonstration, but the Oss transcends that. Really, it’s just a bit of good old fashioned silliness. People like to ‘justify’ it by saying it’s an ancient fertility custom – practised since time immemorial – but it probably is only a couple of centuries old (Kevin thinks there are Napoleonic references in the songs – but the lyrics he quoted could easily be read in all sorts of ways). Ironically, the tradition of the Oss – the trappings of white costumes and black masks – might have been imported by Moorish mariners, but I didn’t feel like pointing this out to the Tory racist. Her theory about its origins sounded just as feasible – during the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was seen approaching. All the men were away – and so the women dressed in white, as sailors, to make the French think the place was ‘manned’. It seemed to work. When the men returned from war they were so taken by this, they started to do this themselves – women were not allowed to take part. Leaving Daily Mail woman, I rejoined my friends. We walked around the harbour, then up to the war memorial, which afforded fine views over the estuary mouth. The sun was just setting behind the headland and – after a rainy afternoon – the clouds broke. It felt like a ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ moment, I observed. I shouldn’t have invited in such ‘thought-forms’ for later on someone called me Compo, since I was wearing my woolly hat in an attempt to retain my rapidly vanishing body heat.

Our small but merry band made its way back into the village to get another one before the six o’clock dance of the Old Oss. This time I was determined to get a good view, and so I waited outside the Golden Lion inn, the ‘stables’ of the original Oss. At 6pm the Ossers emerged, sporting different coloured rain macs, as though part of their ritual regalia. The black Oss squeezed out of the narrow front entrance – a painful birth – and started jigged about furiously, falling into the crowds and being pushed back into the middle, as it zig-zagged down the lane. Touching its black skirt is meant to bring luck – get taken under it and it’s meant to make you pregnant!

My friends found me in the crowds and we followed the Oss to the ‘village square’ where it converged with the rival Oss – jigging around the enormous May Pole. The crowds packed in – but we were right up the front. The atmosphere was fantastic – the Oss was really going for it. The rain didn’t dampen our spirits. It really felt like we were tapping into something powerful and primal here – rightly or wrongly. It felt real. You could feel the sap stirring – and the carefree spirit of summer coming in after the sober days of winter.

Old mates reunite at Padstow - Kevin, John & Aaron

Buzzing, but in need of some hot food we went to get some from the quayside. More beer followed and I was beginning to flag – it had been a long day and it wasn’t over yet! The final dance was at 10pm. A siesta would’ve been good – but seating space was at a premium. We went to the Golden Lion – with its incredibly low ceiling, as though at any moment its going to collapse in like a soggy paper bag. Finally a seat appeared and with relief I slumped down into it, trying to save some energy for the final stint.

The drumming started again – it will stay with me for days – and we made our way outside, girding our loins with, you’ve guessed it, a final drink. I had a shot of Jagermeister, which seemed to do the trick. The Oss appeared – the dancers and drummers in a kind of shamanic trance (induced by a day of drumming, dancing and beer). They were wilder than ever – the atmosphere was positively Bacchanalian – and I felt we had all become lost in a kind of collective folk consciousness. We followed, we sang, we cheered with the slightest of encouragement.

With one final loud cheer the drumming stopped – the dance was over – the day’s celebrations were officially over. Folk stood around chatting – bubbling with the good vibes. I was ready for bed though. It took a while to extricate the lads from their respective chinwags. We made our way up out the village – passing a couple of police. ‘You must be relieved it’s over’, I suggested. ‘Same again tomorrow,’ one responded, to my surprise. Apparently, it’s repeated the day after, which was news to me – not widely advertised. Maybe a recent addition, to cope with numbers and the uncertainties of the weather?

We made our way back along the dark country roads, feasting on a sky full of stars. We had a couple of torches between us to help us avoid being run over walking along the main road in the pitch black. I led the way like a Signalman, sending a warning flash to approaching drivers.

Despite the slog back to the campsite we were in good spirits – but not completely sozzled. The walk soon sobered us up, which made it easier putting up the tent in the dark. Finally, I slipped into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes, satisfied at experiencing such a magical, unique celebration of British culture.

Oss Oss, Wee Oss!

Garden of Awen: Raising the May

2 May


This Garden was themed to celebrate May Day – the Celtic festival of Beltane; the International Workers’ Day; and the start of summer. I arrived back from Padstow, where I had seen the Obby Oss with my friend Kevin the day before, at 5pm – giving me an hour to turnaround (life seems to be like that at the moment – the next morning at 6am I was off to Egypt for a month – fortunately I had packed on Friday night).

Coco Boudoir, a regular burlesque, normally on Saturday was double-booked – upstairs in the Chapel – I was concerned about the noise pollution and a bit disappointed that they had done this, when the first Sunday of the month has been our regular slot since the Garden’s inception in November last year. I thought we was going having to cancel – but I managed to find a solution, by bringing it forward an hour and having the poets on first; the drumming, dancing and music in the second half. This worked out okay. We didn’t have a large crowd – but you don’t need many to fill the cafe space and it looked healthy. With it being the May Day bank holiday weekend alot of people were away or burnt out from bringing in the May. Nevertheless, it was a good atmosphere – a mixture of old friends and new faces turned up, including a contingent from Glastonbury.

I introduced the evening with my green man poem, One With the Land, getting everyone to join in with the chorus. This helped to warm things up – including me! I was tired from the long ride back, on top of everything else. It has been a full on few weeks. But that is the energy of May, I find, when the quickening of Spring reaches its climax.

Then I welcomed up our first guest poet, Helen Moore, a fellow Bard of Bath and now resident of Frome. She performed an excellent set of topical and beautifully crafted ecobardic poems, including one about Hedge Funds – both the green and greedy variety – and another called Cunt Magic – reclaiming the word from its derogatory connotations and getting into the spirit of May.

Afterwards we have some floor spots, starting with Ken Masters who had accompanied Helen on a variety of instruments, including a piper with which he emulated the noises of a washing machine for a poem called ‘Green Wash’. He shared with us a poem based upon his Greek dancing holiday.

Next, we had a poem by Verona Bass – ‘loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ – before moving on to the second guest poet, Jeff Cloves, rebel poet of Stroud, who performed his first solo set of poetry for 20 years, with readings from his new collection. He brought some of the anarchic Labour Day spirit into the proceedings – May Day was also a time when the status quo was turned on its head and the Lord of Misrule prevailed.

We ended the first half with ‘parish notices’ and a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ for Amanda.

During the break I caught up with a couple of friends – it was all a bit of a whirlwind, taking money, buying drinks, and dealing with everyone.

After the break, I started the second half with my poem to the Spring Maiden, Maid Flower Bride – which flowed well, despite my fatigue, and provided the perfect intro for Ola’s amazing dance to Oshun, an African fertility goddess, which she did with real fire, accompanied by her friend on djembe. It was great to see the Garden come alive with movement like that – the last time we’d had a dancer was in December (Irina Kuzminsky from Oz). This time it was Ola from Bonn performing African dance – we’re nothing if not international1

We had a couple more floor spots – a rendition of The Padstow May Song from Kevin Williams, dressed up in his Navy Officer’s uniform; a great ‘butterfly’ story from Kirsty; and a couple of poems from Amanda (one inspired by the Way of Awen weekend). We were meant to end with my friend Justin – but he didn’t make it, alas – but things worked out okay as Ken led us in a Greek dance with smooth the crossing for all travellers (something I could relate to). And so another Garden came to an end – in good spirits. A modest but pleasant success.

Afterwards some of us went up to enjoy the second half of Coco Boudoir – enjoying the exotic cabaret, which definitely helped to raise the May!