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Gadzooks!

Thirsty knights refreshing themselves at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

Gadzooks!

11th July

Early on Sunday I made my way northwards along the Cotswold Edge to the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, now in its 27th year. I had been meaning to go for a number of years, hearing good things about it – what, I couldn’t quite say, but there was a general consensus it was ‘a good one’. It had started, in the words of the introduction to this year’s programme:’an idea thought up over a pint by some of the ‘Companions of the Black Bear’…’

at the sign of the glove...

I raced through the sunshine to be there in time for the opening ceremony performed by druid friends, including Elaine and Greywolf. Apparently, they had a countdown for me to arrive. I might have made it if not for the army maidens demanding a parking fee at the entrance – and me clumsily dropping my gloves several times. I parked up by a mobile home and raced in, over the tilting field and over the little wooden bridge that provides a threshold into the festival’s medieval timewarp. They said to meet my by the beer tent – typical druids. I saw a suspicious looking circle in the distance and headed towards them. Sure enough, the druids were in a circle outside the Drunken Monk Inn. I arrived and joined them just as they chanted ‘And may peace prevail throughout the whole world!’ They finished casting the circle with air – in the form of Greywolf’s flute; fire – with incense; and water – scattered before us. I pulled on my bardic cloak. Phew – I had made it! Elaine asked people to speak on behalf of whomever they wished to. Immediately, the PA kicked in, which made everyone laugh. The ceremony was good-humoured, especially with Greywolf’s light touch, and such disturbances didn’t derail things (indeed the success of any good ceremony is about being full present in the moment and opening to all). Heartfelt words were said about those fallen at the Battle of Tewkesbury – one of the decisive battles of the War of the Roses – that took place on the site, on 4th May, 1471.

Death waits in the wings - at Bloody Meadow, Tewkesbury

Around two thousand five hundred souls met their end that day – on what became known as the Bloody Meadow – more than the two thousand re-enactors that would recreate the battle later in the main arena. Fortunately, the festival was a far more peaceful affair, even though many of the stalls sold armour and weaponry. Strange how so much creativity and culture has thrived off the back of a slaughter. Warfare seems a peculiar thing to celebrate – but for many I imagine it just a chance to escape from the mundanity of their daily lives with a bit of dressing up and role-playing. Yet some take it very seriously – the cost of the costumes and equipment isn’t cheap. I wonder what draws people to certain periods – why do people re-enact? Is it a past life thing? a way of connecting with and honouring ancestors? or a form of OCD (as my friend Jay suggested later when we discussed it over a pint in the Woolpack in Slad, Laurie Lee’s local in the Five Valleys near Stroud)? It is easy to mock the likes of the ‘Sealed Knutters’ (members of the Sealed Knot Civil War re-enactment society, The Sealed Knot). I used to know one in Northampton who was a bona fide eccentric clearly born in the wrong century – a complete obsessive, with tankards and armour cluttering up his bedsit in a tower block – his great-great… grandfather had fought in the battle of Naseby and he still took it personally. But I can see how it gives those who participate a sense of tribe, of community.

Simple life - Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

A reassuring idyll where everyone has a clearly defined role, and life is simplified to a village green arcadia – with all your needs met by individuals like the blacksmith, the baker, the brewer, etc. It is healthily low-tech but highly skilled – craftsmanship is highly prized. Things aren’t mass-produced by hand-made, often bespoke. When I had a chance to wander around the market – rows of stalls (offering a wonderful assortment of medieval wares and skills including alchemy; leech-craft; clayware for daily use; beautiful things in leather, velvet, ring mail; shiny feudal bling; wimples and snoods, doublet and hoseries, and the like) I was impressed by the sheer creativity and craft. It also occurred to me that alot of this is Peak Oil proof – and might be a glimpse of how society could be in the future (as imagined by Richard Jefferies in his post-apocalyptic novel, ‘After London’). However, I can imagine it not being so picturesque and bucolic.

bucolic charm - minstrels at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

Folk lolled about in the sweltering sun (one of the hottest days of the year), enjoying a flagon of cider while watching ‘knight combat’ or listening to a band of prancing loons in the beer tent. There were a couple of guys were ‘pet dragons’ on their arms – but these were trumped by a man with a python wrapped around his neck, which he was letting small children stroke. I had to have a go as well. ‘Some pythons can be mean, but he likes people’, the owner reassured. There were lots of panting dogs around, tongues lolling (imagine sweating through your tongue – and then giving someone a sloppy kiss – eeeuww) including several large, shaggy wolf-like varieties. One husky pulled a small boy along in a cart – ‘it’ll all end in tears’, I said, seeing it running along. Next thing, it jack-knifed on a tussock, throwing the boy out. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt – indeed, seemed to enjoy the experience. Health and Safety seemed marvellously absent from the whole affair – although St John’s paramedics were there in force, especially for the final battle – where there services were required after one particularly rough skirmish resulted in an ambulance arriving. I watched an archery demonstration – just for a chance to lie back on a grassy bank in the sun. Far more impressive was the archery-on-horseback demo later, where Korean-style horsemanship/archery was shown in dramatic fashion by three folk dressed up like Mongols.

Battle of Tewkesbury

The grand finale was spectacular – two thousands re-enactors marching onto the field of battle in all their armour and colours, waving their banners, shouting insults at the opposition. The crowds were encouraged to join in with this good-humoured ribbing. I ended up on the Yorkist side – not by choice, by chance – so I suddenly found myself a Royalist for the first time in my life. When the King and the Young Pretender finally met for parlez in the middle of the field, there was a certain frisson about the whole thing – enhanced by the commentary from the PA tower. It reminded me, visually, of Arthur and Mordred at the  fatal Battle of Camlan – it seems this ‘script’ has been played out through time. The young will always try to overthrow the old and perhaps that’s healthy, as one generation must make way for the next.

a brutal battle for survival - medieval warfare

Yet there is something Darwinian and brutal about how the upstart, eager to prove himself, will try his luck against the established pro with his reputation (like an old stag – the alpha male – with his hinds, having to defend himself against a young rival). The battle slowly got under way – large armies don’t move fast: an unwieldly behemoth, once it gets lumbering in one direction, it’s almost impossible to stop. The chain of consequences led to the inevitable endgame, the slaughter of Bloody Meadow – men bashing the crap out of each other, rather than talking it out (a display of relentless stupidity – all violence is an insult to evolution, to the sacredness of life – I witnessed in microcosm with my friend later, as we sat on a bench in the churchyard where Laurie Lee is buried, opposite his favourite local, The Woolpack in Slad. A booze-fuelled altercation broke out, complete with screaming girlfriends, shattering the peace of a quiet Cotswold village on a Sunday afternoon). After watching about an hour of the ‘carnage’ – albeit with the Tewkesbury miracle of battlefield resurrection – swathes of arrows darkening the skies, the report of cannon and rifle fire, the shouts of men – I grew weary of it all. It’s sad that so much energy and talent is put into recreating death and destruction rather than the arts of peace. I’d had enough – it had been a full on weekend and I needed to rest, but there was still the ride home, via Stroud, where I met up with my dear friend Jay, for a heart-to-heart over a pint. We do not need to use our fists. We can be better than that. Jay shouted over to the brawling boozers ‘Stupid! Stupid!’ and there is something Neantherdal about such behaviour. Yet, despite such reflections, it had been a worthwhile endeavour – the medieval festival in Tewkesbury is worth seeing. It makes for a colourful and interesting day out. It certainly brings history alive, which has got to be a good thing (for if we learn from the past there’s a chance we don’t make the same mistakes). We can take the best of it – the value of craftsmanship, of ‘human scale’ social structure and interaction, of etiquette, of community-belonging – and leave the rest.

Riding the Dragon

Riding the Dragon  part 3

20th-21st June

pistyll rhaeadr

Pistyll Rhaeadr - one of the seven wonders of Wales, photo by K. Manwaring

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.

Annie the bride as Titania

Annie the bride as Titania

Keith as Oberon

Keith as Oberon

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.

setting for Keith and Annie's wedding, N Wales

setting for Keith and Annie's wedding, N Wales

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

midsummer night's dream puppet show

midsummer night's dream puppet show

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.

beer - a reason to be cheerful

beer - a reason to be cheerful

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.

merriment in the marquee - Keith & Annie's wedding feast

merriment in the marquee - Keith & Annie's wedding feast

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!

Bala gorsedd circle by Kevan Manwaring

Bala gorsedd circle by Kevan Manwaring

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.

Bala motte

Bala motte

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.

Tan-y-Pistyll tearooms by the waterfall by KM

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,

shining, magnificent,

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.

Inklings of Spring

Imbolc, 1st February

Today celebrated what is in the Celtic Calendar the beginnings of Spring – although it feels like long way off yet – the Fire Festival of Imbolc, sacred to the goddess Bridghid, patroness of poetry, smithcraft and healing. We could have done with her sacred flame (which was tended by priestesses and later nuns at her sanctuary in Kildare) today as we held a ceremony outside on a bitterly cold winter’s day – the pre-snow (infintesimal flakes  like fairy tears) as delicate as the snowdrops pushing through the slumbering earth. Sue Cawthorne, current holder of the Ovate Chair of Caer Badon, called it to take place at the Beazer Garden Maze with its mosaic of Bladud and six Greek Myths by Pulteney Weir. A raggle taggle circle gathered – many canal folk – huddling together like penguins in the Antarctic. After Sue started the proceedings, followed by a song for Imbolc by priestess of Sulis and Nemetona, Sheila Broun, I asked people to remember Tim Sebastion Woodman, the founder of the Gorsedd – who died two years ago on this very day – crossing over, with impeccable druid timing on Imbolc (as though consciously choosing the day of his death): the first time he’d ever been on time for anything, I joked. And Tim was, among other things, a joker. His irreverently wise spirit is missed. He has a way of puncturing the pomposity of much of the ‘oaky machoness’ as he put it you can get at such ceremonies. The posturing and publicity-seeking. Last year I held an Imbolc Bardic Showcase in his memory in Glastonbury. For me, the festival will always be associated with him – and I think of it, with some amusement, as ‘Timbolc’! Yet the festival for me has been for a long time the one I associate with Taliesin and Ceridwen. It is a poet’s festival and the ideal time to rededicate oneself to one’s path – which for me is the Way of Awen, the way of the Bard. And yet this year there is an extra sadness – locally we are mourning the recent loss from cancer of Dave Angus, who was a great poet and singer/guitarist. He set up a popular open mic event called What a Performance! On Friday there was one scheduled which became an emotive tribute night, following close on his passing. I performed my ‘Last Rites to John Barleycorn’ there – because Dave was something of a Barleycorn figure, as a merry soul who gave of himself freely to his community. Today we made him an honorary Bard of Caer Badon – a gesture to acknowledge his contribution and talent.  During the gorsedd I performed my Imbolc poem, Bride of Spring (below) above the roar of the weir. It was a nice visual fix to have swans swimming close by in the Avon.

Things were quickly wrapped up, for it was seriously cold, and I headed back home to prepare for my wee Imbolc ‘poetry tea poetry’ – a gentle Sunday afternoon affair. The sharing of poems over tea, cake and other tasties. Folk turned up from about 3pm and it was pleasant chilled out occasion, with contributions of song, verse and tale from some of my talented friends.  This is my ideal way to celebrate such times – I’m not one for ‘High Church’ paganism, preferring bardic sharing around the hearth or campfire to the pomp and ceremony. I like to simply gather in a circle and share. As a bard this is how I engage with the deeper meaning of the festivals – by the reciting and listening the traditional tales and songs. And  by the physical experience of visiting appropriate sites – as I did this morning, making a modest pilgrimage to my local woodland spring: a simple Sunday morning stroll on the surface, but for me, a way of reconnecting with the Source.

The Bride of Spring

In darkest hour of the year

she arises.

Casting off her shadowy gown

as she steps over the horizon –

by sun king kissed,

borne by his golden down.

A dress of frosted cobwebs

veils maiden skin.

Within a seasons turning

the crone has become virgin.

Snowdrops touch her and turn into flowers,

as the slumbering land stirs

in these formative hours.

The earth softens at her feet

where buds shake free their winter bed.

Newborn lambs begin to bleat –

insistent mouths by ewes milk fed.

Rooster heralds her on the ground.

Above, the feathered chorus

make naked trees resound.

We awake to a changing world.

Her white magic revealed –

a petal uncurled.

Stone bound man

let your proud bells ring,

for we are welcomed into her garden

as she stand at the gates of spring.

 

The infant year she presents,

placing the future in our hands.

A gift of renewed innocence,

restoring the egg timer sands…

Kevan Manwaring (from Green Fire: magical verse for the wheel of the year)