Tag Archives: Eisteddfod

Bard of Hawkwood 2017



Centre – Madeleine Harwood, Bard of Hawkwood 2017

3 years ago I set up the Bard of Hawkwood contest to promote community creativity. This, along with Stroud Out Loud! – the monthly spoken word showcase I founded – offers a way for budding bards to hone their fledgling talents in an inclusive, supportive way. It is not the only way of doing things but it works here in Stroud and the Five Valleys, where there is a wealth of local talent and traditions of artistic heritage, alternative lifestyles, radical thinking, and grassroots activity. The Bardic Chair tradition and revival is something I have explored in my book, The Bardic Chair: inspiration, invention, innovation (1st published by RJ Stewart Books in 200, a new edition of the book is forthcoming).

RJ Stewart Books, 2008

The revival of English Bardic Chairs is largely down to one man, Tim Sebastian. The Arch-Druid of Wiltshire and the Secular Order of Druids. I had the pleasure to know Tim during my time in the city of Bath. I won the Bardic Chair he set up in 1996 (becoming Bard of Bath in 1998). He died in 2007 and the book is dedicated to him. This book, and the others I have written about the Bardic Tradition (Speak Like Rain: letters to a young bard, Awen, 2004; The Bardic Handbook, Gothic Image 2006; The Way of Awen, O Books 2010), as well as my training and experience in Arts in Community Development, inform my endeavours – providing platforms for creativity that celebrate local distinctiveness, diversity, and transcultural empathy. Now more than ever we need to hear one another’s stories and sing the songs of soil and soul.


Here’s the Press Release announcing the new Bard of Hawkwood – feel free to reblog, tweet or share….

The New Bard of Hawkwood Announced

After a gripping contest at the Hawkwood College May Day festival Monday 1st May, the new Bard of Hawkwood has been announced: Madeleine Harwood, who won with her original song, ‘Right Way Up’.

Madeleine said afterwards: ‘I shared the room with some extremely talented individuals and so I am very humbled to have been chosen as this year’s Bard. I look forward to working hard over the coming months to really promote everything the the Bardic Chair stands for.’

The Bard of Hawkwood contest – an annual competition for the best poet, singer or storyteller in the Five Valleys area – was founded in 2014 by Stroud-based writer Kevan Manwaring (a previous winner of the Bard of Bath contest). The theme, chosen by the outgoing bard, Anthony Hentschel, was: Contentment (or Resistance). Each entrant also had to read out a ‘bardic statement’ describing their plans if they were to win. The role lasts for a year and a day.

Madeleine will get to sit in the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood – an original Eisteddfod chair, dating from 1882, kindly loaned by Frampton-based solicitor Richard Maisey, in whose family it has been for generations. It is on permanent display at Hawkwood College. The new bard will get to set the theme for next year’s contest, announced in the winter. Future contestants then have until 23 April to enter an original story, song or poem, and must be able to perform at next year’s Hawkwood May Day Festival.

Kevan says: ‘The Bard of Hawkwood becomes the ambassador for the Bardic Chair, Hawkwood College, and their area. Having been a winner myself I know how empowering it can be – not only for the individual recipient, but also for their respective community. It is about celebrating local distinctiveness, fostering civic pride, and loving where you live.’


If you would like to be involved in the Bard of Hawkwood contest, Stroud Out Loud! or creative community in the Stroud area, get in touch.

If Your Memory Serves You Well…

Poetry By Heart

MC Kevan Manwaring and Joy-Amy Wigman, poet and workshop leader at Poetry by Heart Gloucestershire Finals, 29 Jan 2015

MC Kevan Manwaring and Joy-Amy Wigman, poet and workshop leader at Poetry by Heart Gloucestershire Finals, 29 Jan 2015

Last night I had the pleasure and privilege of MCing the Gloucestershire finals of the Poetry by Heart competition. This is a national initiative set up by former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. It is a poetry recital competition for 14-18 year olds. The contestants must choose 2 poems from the fat anthology containing a timeline of verse from Beowulf to 21st Century poetry: a pre-1914 and post-1914. And this year they were asked to select a third poem, from a First World War anthology. With these three poems committed to memory they must first compete within their schools, in front of class mates; and then the school winners must compete with their county. The winners of these heats get to go to Cambridge in March to perform in the regional and national finals.

The learning of poetry by heart is a great way to build confidence and self-esteem, improve public speaking skills, and foster a deeper understanding of language – transferable skills that can help in many ways; and the poems can become wise friends for the reciter – guiding through life. And you’re never short of a party-piece!

The essence of the contest is very bardic and similar to the Eisteddfod system of which I am very familiar – having entered, won and judged several Bardic Chair contests (the latest being the Bard of Hawkwood which I set up last year). Any initiative that encourages the Bardic Tradition is good by me and this is a particularly well thought out one.

To warm the audience up I offered my comic poem, ‘Phone Tree’, and later on, a couple of my favourite poems, ‘A Musical Instrument’ by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, and ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ by WB Yeats.

I was relieved not to be judging last night – always a tricky thing to undertake, especially when the quality is so high. And it certainly was in the Gloucester Guildhall. The five contestants (all girls, sadly, as the only boy dropped out at the last minute – but well done to the girls for being so brave!) were all of a very high standard. I was deeply impressed by all of them – bringing alive some of my favourite poetry (Kubla Khan; Dover Beach; Lights Out; Journey of the Magi).

There were three judges – all experienced in poetry and drama. We had a guest poem from artist-scientist, the Purple Poet; and a set from Joy-Amy Wigman, the ‘red haired pixie of doom’, who entertained the audience whilst the judges deliberated.

The Guildhall is a great venue – a classy old building which is now an arts centre, with cinema, bar, hall and workshop rooms. It looked like alot was going on.

The judges returned and the winner was announced – Sophia Smout – who will go onto Cambridge. Prizes were handed out – and all those who took part achieved alot by just stepping up the mark. They deserve our respect. As do their parents and teachers for supporting them.

Tim Shortis, from Poetry by Heart, said after that I ‘…did a great job as MC, soothing and encouraging and generally wafting people towards the light.’

I’m a good wafter!

Whatever age you are – it is always worth learning a poem: a friend for life.


Hedd Wyn and the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood

The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood - an original Eisteddfod Chair from 1882

The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood – an original Eisteddfod Chair from 1882

Hedd Wyn & The Bardic Chair at Hawkwood 9 November 2014

 A review by Katie Lloyd-Nunn

Kevan Manwaring, Cotswold Word Centre volunteer co-ordinator and former Bard of Bath (1998-1999), introduced the evening. His intention in organizing the event was to honour Remembrance Sunday and to generate interest in the new competition for the Bard of Hawkwood. This was launched at Hawkwood Open Day on Monday 5 May 2014 and this evening is almost exactly half way through the year which will culminate in the competition and adjudication on Monday 4 May 2015 at Hawkwood Open Day. The theme of the competition is FLOOD and competitors must be “within a day’s walk of the Chair” i.e. and inhabitant of GL5 or GL6 postcode, as winning the Chair includes responsibilities related to the Chair and its location in GL6 at Hawkwood. Each applicant is to perform an original poem, song or story of less than 10 minutes duration.

Richard Maisey, Holder of the Bardic Chair, talked about the Chair, saying how it has been in his family in South Wales near Neath for a long time. The plaque reads Eisteddfod Denbighshire 1882, but no name is assigned (as no Chair was awarded that year). It’s tremendous that now this unclaimed Chair will have the opportunity to be won by a local talented wordsmith.

Kevan explained how the current revival of Bardic Chairs came about. The eccentric antiquarian Edward Williams (Iolo Morgannwg) ‘found’ a list of 30 English Chairs, several of which have now been revived including Bath, Exeter and Glastonbury thanks chiefly to the vision and initiative of the late Tim Sebastian, who started the Bath Eisteddfod in 1996. New Chairs are being created, eg Northampton. What is a Bard? The Bard kept remembrances and genealogy of the tribe and shared stories of wooing, wedding and funerals. They were not Druids, though.

[Katie adds: In 1998 I met Donald McDonald, the Bard of South Uist. He wrote poems about all sorts of events, between thatching his own roof aged late 70s, including Camilla’s marriage to Prince Charles. It was huge privilege to meet him!]

A Laureate is appointed by the Queen and has officialdom attached to him/her. In contrast Bard is elected by their community, and needs to able to perform and connect to an audience, not to be just a “page poet”, e.g. performance poet, singer, storyteller.

The Cotswold Word Centre honours all the word activities in the local area.

The Chair, as its living symbol, will foster community arts engagement. It will support local creativity as each Bard represents a particular locality.

We then watched Hedd Wyn film, a 1992 Welsh-language film. Its title is taken from the bardic name of Ellis Humphrey Evans, who won the Bardic Chair of Birkenhead of 1917 posthumously, having being killed at the Battle of Passchendaele. ‘Hedd Wyn’ means ‘Blessed Peace’.

(see separate notes)

 13. Hedd Wyn

After the film, John Xavian, Bard of May Hill spoke:

“I am a Celt and this film upheld all the Bardic Traditions and we need to look ahead and get working on it [the 2015 competition for the Bard of Hawkwood] now! We want to see young people writing. We need to get into the schools. Spread the word from this gathering! We needpeople to respond. This is a live heritage. Everyone is capable of creation. Like painting, we can write with the Pen – we have the English Language full of shades and colours, tones, depth. Artistic creation is within everyone. Recognise what’s in your heart. People need galvanizing. By freeing the Spirit in each of us, the stupidity of war can be challenged. When the Spirit is bound, the Human is led by aggressive acquisition and short-term gain. Let us remember that music and art meet in poetry.

We want to see a Bard at Hawkwood and we want to see people who want to be the Bard at Hawkwood. The Chair is the symbol for the Spirit unbound in creativity.

Kevan added the tragedy in this film was the silencing of all the voices. The Ellis chair is known as the Black Chair and the 1917 Birkenhead festival is now referred to as “Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu” (“The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair”). A powerful symbol of all those silenced voices. Winston Churchill was asked about cutting arts budget and he said: ‘Then what are we fighting for?’

Josie Felce: It was an honour to work for 20 years in the peninsulas of Wales; to help to stimulate people who are not used to expressing themselves is inspiring. The Bard has the job of inspiring others for one year. There should be performance skills offered.

Kevan: Anyone can perform at the contest at Open Day on Monday 4 May 2015, they don’t have to compete. They will still be part of the ‘Gorsedd’ (the Circle for all those who wish to be involved in supporting the Chair).

Ways to hone performance skills:

Last Friday of the month – Black Books Café Story Supper (next 28 Nov).

Green Words – 10 week Tuesday evening writing course at Hawkwood, starting in January.

Late January – Inklings of Spring Bardic Showcase, an ideal way to savour the “Awen” spirit of inspiration.

Bardic Boot Camp – 28 March, 2015.

Further reflections on the film by Richard Maisey: In the Valleys if you went into the non-conformist chapel, it was to sing. Fewer chapels and no singing now, so singing at Rugby matches is no good – has no “Hywll” no heart / soul / heat/ passion. I wonder if the wood of this chair might have some resonance? Has it soaked up some of those voices?

****The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood is going to Malvern Writers Circle to be blessed by Gillian Clarke, national poet of Wales.****

£44.50 was raised for the Peace Pledge Union from donations.


It was the Best Foreign Language Film in 1992 (in Welsh with English subltitles). Also won several BAFTA Wales awards.

Kevan chose to show this film on 9 November on Remembrance Sunday

  1. Set at the beginning of WWI. Ellis Humphrey Evans entered the Eisteddfod under the nom de plume Fleur de Lys. We are showing this film to honour those who have been impacted by war in whatever way.
  1. Also, it’s about a Bard. It’s one of the things that made me [Kevan] want to be a Bard. It’s not just about the Celts ~ it’s about what we do now to celebrate being alive.

Katie’s review:

It is a relatively simple story of a young man wedded to his Muse who sadly dies in action in the early months of WWI. Driven by his need to write and leading a relatively undemanding farming life, Ellis Humphrey Evans is shown writing in the landscape and getting help from a more educated friend in polishing his work for submission to local Eisteddfod competitions. His poems evoke the beauty of his native land and are infused with unspecified feeling, perhaps hinting at and matched by the sensuality of the Welsh landscape and his own susceptibility to the charms of womankind.

The pace of the film is unhurried and could possibly do with cutting by 20 minutes or so – I didn’t feel the relationship with older woman Lizzie really added to the plot. The disturbing reality of the War gradually oozes into the life of Ellis and his family in parallel with his growing ambition to win the national Eisteddfod. As Kevan says, “The film illustrates the complexity, the forces bearing down on the individuals and the community portrayed.” The anguish and confusion of the mother is well portrayed and echoed by the new young school teacher who urges Ellis to write about this, saying,” Ellis we are all affected by this war.”

The camera plays upon actor Huw Garmon’s handsome sensitive features, his beauty enhanced by the fact that most of the other Welsh-speaking actors seemed to have unusually wobbly Celtic faces.

After months of inertia and avoidance, despite a visit by a War Office official, he is finally brought before a tribunal and deemed fit for war. His tendency towards being a bit of a slacker (according to younger brother Bob) and womanizer is now redeemed by his set-jawed decision to go to war instead of 18 year-old Bob in an act of maturity and honour.

He is then flung into the violent, de-humanising war machine yet still manages to make friends with his fellow Welsh tommies, write letters home and to submit his poem Armageddon to the Bardic competition.

His fatal injury occurs fairly early in the film and the clever use of flashbacks brings a subtle poignancy to the narrative. The staging and direction is beautifully done and though grueling is never gross. The mystical Celtic soul shines through in the lush green landscape and full flowing rivers paralleled by the occasional appearance of a shadowy figure representing love, conscience, Nature or perhaps Arianrhod the once-virginal moon goddess whose boat carried the dead into the afterlife.

Is there Peace?

The Arch-Druids calls out “A oes Heddwch” - Is there Peace?

The Arch-Druids calls out “A oes Heddwch” – Is there Peace?

As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War there is a hyper-abundance of media-attention and a plethora of TV dramas, documentaries, plays, albums, shows, and so forth, flogging a dead war horse… One could be forgiven for a certain fatigue – and we’ve got four more years of it to go! Yet there are some stories that break open the heart.

An especially resonant one for me is that of Hedd Wyn.


‘Hedd Wyn’ was the bardic name of Ellis Humphreys Evans, a Welsh farmer-poet, who won the 1917 Bardic Chair of Birkenhead posthumously (a prize given in an Eisteddfod, the original ‘Game of Thrones’ if you will). Having had some success in previous eisteddfodau (but not the National Welsh one – the most prestigious) Ellis enlisted, having resisted the Call Up for three years. He was not opposed to War, he said, but didn’t relish the thought of killing a man. Because his parents had four sons of age, it was decided by the War Office that one of them must be sent to the Front. Although Ellis, the eldest, did not want to go, he couldn’t bear his younger brother going in his stead. Ellis felt it his duty, as big brother, to step up. Tragically, he was slain in action, but not before he had submitted a long poem to the National Eisteddfod. Fortunately the censors let it pass (though it was initially suspected of being written in code and revealing sensitive information – in fact it was a cri-de-coeur against the inhumanity of all war). The adjudicators decided that it was the best poem, and awarded the Chair – a beautiful carved ‘throne’, to the poet known only under his pseudonym, ‘Hedd Wyn’. He was killed in action before he was able to claim his Chair, but it was awarded post-humously in his honour and became known as the Black Chair.

In 1992 a moving film was released of his story – Hedd Wyn — and it went on to be Oscar-nominated for the Best Foreign-language Drama (it is in Welsh, with English subtitles), as well as winning a BAFTA for Best Picture, and a string of other awards.

Hedd Wyn film poster

Last night, a special Remembrance Sunday screening was held at Hawkwood College, Gloucestershire. The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood was present – an original Eisteddfod Chair from the 1882 contest in Denbighshire. This has been in the family of Richard Maisey for decades, and he has kindly lent it to Hawkwood for the contest, which is to be held at the Open Day, May Day Bank Holiday Monday 2015. The theme is ‘Flood’ and any original poem, song or story by a GL5 or GL6 resident is eligible. Richard said a few words about the Chair, and I introduced the film. Afterwards we had a discussion about some of the issues raised by the heart-rending drama. Considering the countless voices that were silenced by the vast tragedy of the Great War – all those who didn’t make it back from the Trenches, or were injured beyond repair mentally or physically – it was felt that our opportunity to express ourselves creatively is a ‘sacred gift’ that shouldn’t be squandered. Many good men and women have died so we can have that freedom. Peace always comes at a price – and this time of Remembrance is a poignant moment to reflect upon that. To pray for peace. Watching Hedd Wyn I once again felt how could we possibly have let this happen again? Such an exercise in futility as the ‘War to End All Wars’ was, the obscenity of war should not be allowed by civilized people to ever happen again – and yet it has, again and again. By telling these true stories I hope we can make people say No! to all acts of aggression, to the Arms Trade, and the whole industry of aggrandizing War and those who fight in it. Violence is never the solution. There is always another way.

And if we forsake our creativity in the face of conflict then we have forsaken our humanity.


Observe the 2 minutes’ silence at the anniversary of the Armistice, 11th November, 11am GMT, and remember all victims of war. Make a donation to the Peace Pledge Union to support the ongoing campaign for peace.

Bard of Hawkwood

The Gorsedd - with me on the far right

The Declaration of the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood at the Open Day, May 2014 



The search has started for the Bard of Hawkwood 2015. The annual competition was launched at the Hawkwood College Open Day, 5th May, with a traditional ceremony called the ‘Declaration of the Chair’. Bards of Bath, Malvern and Stroud gathered to recite their poetry before the Open Day crowds on the sunny lawns of Hawkwood. The competition is an initiative of the Cotswold Word Centre, launched at Hawkwood on World Book Day, 6th March, earlier this Spring. Co-ordinator Kevan Manwaring set the theme for the contest: ‘Flood’ and explained the rules of entry: an original song, story or poem of 10 mins or less, on the given theme; plus a 300 word statement of intent describing what you would do as your time as the Chaired Bard. The winner will be Bard of Hawkwood for a year and a day and set the theme for the next year’s contest. They will get to sit in the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood – an original Eisteddfod chair, dating from 1882, kindly loaned by Richard Maisey, in whose family it has been for generations. The deadline for entries is the 18th April 2015. 5 copies of the entry, plus the statement, and a SAE to be sent to: K. Manwaring, The Annexe, Richmond House, Park Rd, Stroud, GL5 2JG. Entrants must be able to perform their entry at the Hawkwood College Open Day, May Day 2015, and be a resident of GL5 or GL6.

Kevan says: ‘The Bard of Hawkwood would become the ambassador for the good work of Hawkwood College, the Cotswold Word Centre, and their area. Having been a winner myself I know how empowering it can be – not only for the individual recipient, but also for their respective community. It is about celebrating local distinctiveness, fostering civic pride, and loving where you live.’

Writer and storyteller Kevan Manwaring moved to Stroud in late 2010. He had been a previous resident of Bath, where he won the Bard of Bath contest in 1998. He became involved in the annual contest there, helping to judge future competitions and set up ones in other communities. He is the author of The Bardic Handbook and The Book of the Bardic Chair. He teaches creative writing for the Open University and locally at the Subscription Rooms. He is running literary walks and a workshop on ‘Landscape, Memory and Imagination’ for Creative Arts Week at Hawkwood College. He is the host of the monthly Story Supper at Black Book Cafe – last Friday of the month – an ideal place to hone those bardic skills!

A series of events are planned for the Autumn/Winter in the lead up to the contest – to raise awareness about the contest and the Bardic Tradition. 

Sunday, 9 November
Hedd Wyn & the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood
Remembrance Sunday screening of Oscar-nominated film about a First World War poet who wins the Welsh Eisteddfod, plus a discussion about the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood (an original eisteddfod chair from 1882). 
Hawkwood College, Painswick Old Road, Stroud GL6 7QW
email:info@hawkwoodcollege.co.uk tel:01453 759034
Friday 19- Sunday 21 December
Rekindling the Light
‘firelight, starlight, storylight’
A weekend workshop exploring the myths of winter through creative writing, poetry, storytelling and song, with a special solstice sharing and a chance to walk the solstice spiral. With Kevan Manwaring, author of The Bardic Handbook and others. Fee: non/residential options – contact office.
Hawkwood College, Painswick Old Road, Stroud GL6 7QW
email:info@hawkwoodcollege.co.uk tel:01453 759034
Saturday 31st Jan
Inklings of Spring Bardic Showcase
(Kevan Manwaring with special guest bards tba). 
Come and find out about the Bard of Hawkwood contest, hear fine examples of modern bardism and celebrate Imbolc, the festival sacred to Brighid, Celtic Goddess of poetry, smithcraft and healing. Bring an Imbolc wish and sow your seed for the coming year. Bring a candle to have it blessed at this traditional time (Candlemas).



Warming of the Chair

Richard Maisey talks about the Eisteddfod Chair (1882), at Hawkwood Open Day

Richard Maisey talks about the Eisteddfod Chair (1882), at Hawkwood Open Day                                  Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2014

On Bank Holiday Monday (5th May) I organised the ‘Warming of the Chair’ – the Declaration of the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood, as part of their lovely annual Open Day – when the Gloucestershire College (dramatically-situated on the Cotswold Edge) opens its doors to the public and gives folk a taste of what is on offer throughout the year, with free taster workshops, stalls, walks, demos, delicious food and entertainment.

Hawkwood was originally called The Grove, and there is the possibility that once an avenue of yew trees led to the ancient spring which still bubbles there, these days at the foot of the massive sycamore tree. It has been a centre for holistic, creative endeavours and kindred-spirit gatherings for decades (and perhaps even longer, going by its old name) so it seems the perfect place for the location of a Bardic Chair, which is traditionally sited on a Gorsedd mound.

The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood - an original Eisteddfod Chair from 1882

The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood – an original Eisteddfod Chair from 1882 Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2014

The idea for the Bard of Hawkwood came to me through a conversation with Richard Maisey – who interviewed me for the Five Valleys Directory just after I moved to Stroud. He mentioned he had in his possession an original ‘Bardic Chair’ – from a Welsh Eisteddfod. It turns out this precious family heirloom was passed down through the Welsh side of his family and was made for the 1882 Denbighshire Eisteddfod (as the plaque on it states). Having founded the Cotswold Word Centre  (CWC) at Hawkwood College last Autumn, I thought the title of Bard of Hawkwood would create a great platform for promoting the good work of the College, the CWC, and the local community. And the Open  Day seemed like the ideal day to do it. With the blessing of the Principal Alicia Carey and Education co-ordinator, Katie Lloyd-Nunn, I set to work.

The newly formed Gorsedd of Hawkwood, 5th May 2014

The newly formed Gorsedd of Hawkwood, 5th May 2014 Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2014

I invited fellow Bards to help in the ‘Warming of the Chair’ – a year and a day in advance of the actual contest – each contributing their ‘bardic bottom’ to the proceedings! In the end there were eleven of us – the first eleven as it were – who came out to ‘bat’ for ‘Bardic College’ on a fine sunny day at the start of summer, wearing our finest clobber. I dusted off my Irish Piper’s cloak for the occasion.

The Gorsedd - with me on the far right

The Gorsedd – with me on the far right Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2014

It was a bit touch and go as the key people didn’t turn up until 1pm – when we were due to start – but it all came together at the last minute. We processed onto the lawn before the May Pole, forming a half-circle around the Chair. Then  John Xzavian, Bard of May Hill, blew his horn to announce the start of the ceremony. I introduced the proceedings – announcing the search for the Bard of Hawkwood (the contest will be held in a year’s time at the 2015 Open Day – as is the tradition, the Chair must be announced a year ahead). There will be an adult competition and one for children (5-10;11-15 yrs). The theme for the adults is ‘Flood’; and for the children ‘Summer’. It has to be an original song, story or poem 10 minutes or less. The adult entrants must provide a 300 word statement of intent, about what their plans would be if they won the contest. They would hold the title for a year and a day and be expected to fulfil that role with their bardic skills, e.g. writing and performing poems for special occasions. To qualify the entrants must be residents of the area (with a GL5 or GL6 postcode). I then invited up Richard Maisey to talk about the Chair and he read out a little of ‘What is Poetry…?’ Then I asked Sulyen Caradon, Druid of Bath, to lead us in Raising the Awen and reciting the Druid’s Prayer. Together we formed the Gorsedd of Hawkwood – whose job is to look after the Chair and organise the competition. Next up, was John Xzavian again to recite his satirical verse about poetry. He was followed by Mark Westmore, the new Bard of Bath, who belted out his Beltane poem. Then we had a trio of Stroud poets – Gabriel Bradford Millar, Peter Adams, and Robin Collins (who will hopefully enter next year as they’re all strong candidates). Richard and Misha Carder from the Bath Gorssed then offered their eco-poems. I followed with my ‘Song of Taliesin’ poem – honouring the Penbeirdd – and the Eisteddfod part of the ceremony was finished off by Jehanne and Rob Mehta’s beautiful ‘Corn King’ song. We finished the ceremony with the Blessing of the Chair, scattering it with water from the Hawkwood spring. I joked that anyone who won the Chair would become the Soggy Bottom Bard! Once more I encouraged folk to enter. Then John blew his horn and we processed out. Job done. The crowds on the lawn seemed entertained – many no doubt being exposed to a modern Bardic ceremony for the first time. Hopefully, some will be inspired to enter the contest. Stroud has plenty of opportunities to hone bardic skills, with the numerous open mics and workshops – Hawkwood College of course running a comprehensive programme in tandem with the Cotswold Word Centre. Budding bards have a whole year to sharpen their quills and practice their projection.

May Pole dancing at Hawkwood College Open Day

May Pole dancing at Hawkwood College Open Day Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2014

Afterwards, catching my breath, I was able to grab a ‘bardic burger and beer’ and enjoy the sunshine on the lawn, chatting to friends and watching the May Pole dancing.  It felt like we had successfully ‘warmed the Chair’ and announced publicly, in the ‘eye of light’, the competition. Until we get a winner I am acting Bard of Hawkwood and the Founder of the Chair. If no one comes forward I automatically become the reining Bard – but I hope we get plenty of entries. May the Awen flow and the best Bard win!

Bardic Yuletide

Yuletide Gathering at the Cauldron, Dec '09

Yuletide Gathering

19th December

Although I am not a Christian (but not un- or anti-) and Christmas means little to me in terms of its specific religious symbolism I can appreciate the wider mythic meta-tropes at work in narratives about the return of the light in the depths of winter – be it in the form of an avatar, sun king, solar deity, or simply the sun itself – and I enjoy Yuletide with all its festive trimmings. I love the holly and the ivy, the mistletoe, the tree, the candles, the wassailing, the rosy-cheeks of the carol singers, the shining eyes of the children and most of all – the gathering around the hearth and connecting with loved ones. Beyond all the consumerism and emotional blackmail (the Scrooge story hauled out every year to make curmudgeonly humbugs buckle) this is ultimately what the season is all about, as encoded in the message that is often forgotten in the stressful run-up to the big day: Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all Mankind. A message often drowned out in the endless partying, the booze-ups and bust-ups, the relentless television and shopping frenzy. Yet I decided to try and ‘do my bit’ and acquit myself socially by opening my doors to friends last night for my Yuletide Gathering.

I spent the day preparing the house – cleaning, decorating (with holly and ivy I had gathered outside), making food, sorting out music and so forth. It was quite relaxing – especially the cooking: nothing elaborate, just a vegetable winter stew, mulled wine and mince pies. Once the fairy lights were up and I had hung the mistletoe and lit the candles and some frankincense and myrrh, I felt I had created a lovely Christmassy ambience. All I needed now were some guests … I guess I shouldn’t have expected anyone to turn up on time, but when it was 7.30pm and still no one had arrived I was starting to feel a little anxious … the nasty goblin in my head telling me ‘you don’t have any friends, nobody likes you!’ – then I heard footsteps and they all started to arrive. Suddenly the party was happening!

I served up goblets of mulled wine as folk arrived – wrapped up on a chilly night (it did try to snow earlier; and the country is beset with wintry conditions – flurries of flakes on the tracks!) and offered them some stew. Folk brought offerings and soon the kitchen surfaces were overflowing. After the majority of the guests had arrived and made themselves comfortable I asked for some peace to start a session of sharing – beginning with a poem about stillness, to tie in with the time of year. I talked briefly about how the solstice means stillness: the atmosphere changed, became ‘sacred’ – just through the simple act of going round in a circle and sharing. People offered poems, songs, anecdotes. There was a poem in Icelandic by my friend Svanur and a song in Korean by Jin (a government-censored protest song about ‘dew’). I ended the first session by getting everyone to read out a verse of Carol Anne Duffy’s poem, The Twelve Days of Christmas, from the Radio Times – very topical and amusing in places. It allowed those who didn’t have a chance to join in.

Later, I asked people to sit round once more to share the meadhorn – an ‘old tradition’ of mine, which actually has precedents dating back to the Dark Ages. It’s mentioned in Beowulf and in the 13th Century a custom was observed that involved toasting ‘Wassail!’ and replying ‘drink hail!’ before passing on the wassail bowl/meadhorn – with a kiss. Everyone joined in this with gusto – the first time, folk were a little embarrassed and came out with relatively trivial toasts, a little glib or silly. The second time it got a little bit more authentic, and the third time, folk were being far more genuine. It worked its simple magic. A powerful but effective way to create sacred space.

And then the partying started in earnest – whether it was the mead, or the tension release, but suddenly, dramatically the atmosphere changed to something far more merrier than before. Songs were sung and everyone joined in – corny Christmas carols, but good fun. There was some Icelandic blues (!) from Svanur and other ‘campfire classics’ like the Pete Seeger song, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ It turned out to be truly great night. There was the perfect amount of people there, and a good mix. Everyone seemed to get on and didn’t seem to want to leave…

The best sign of a good night is the atmosphere of the room afterwards. There was a lovely warm glow. Good vibes. Everyone was said goodbye with hugs and kisses. There wasn’t too much to clear up – the worst was tidied away, the washing up left til morning. It was late. Went to bed in good spirits and awoke with fond memories. – and a head not too fuzzy, considering. A good fry-up and a walk in the winter sun and I was feeling on top of the world.

Changing of the Bards

20th December

Jack Dean, the 14th Bard of Bath

On Sunday night I went along to the annual contest for the Bardic Chair, this year held at ‘Back to Mine’, a nightclub – another first! Each bard gets to stamp their identity on it. Master Duncan, 13th Bard of Bath, being our youngest to date (until tonight!) has appealed to a younger demographic with his hiphop style and topical lyrics. Tonight he pulled out all the stops to create an entertaining night blending poetry, music and dance.

The dancefloor ‘well’ was transformed into a grove with Christmas trees from the farm of one of Duncan’s contacts. Birdsong was piped through the PA, creating an effect very similar to my Garden of Awen, started two months before… Ah, well – a sign of flattery I suppose. The first half consisted of a cabaret of various acts: a powerful singer-guitarist; a rapper; a flamenco guitarist; and a rather raunchy dance troupe called Nice-as-Pie.

swansong - Master Duncan, 13th Bard of Bath. Final performance as Bard

After the break, MC Duncan performed a couple of his poems as his final performance as Bard of Bath, before the contestants were called up. A coin was tossed and called. ‘Tails never fails’, said Jack Dean, and sure enough it was, though Duncan thought it was ‘heads’! Perhaps he had a suspicion that it would have been easier on Dave Selby, the other act, because Jack’s blistering tour-de-force was a hard act to follow. Not wanting in ambition, he interpreted the theme, ‘The Last B—-‘, in a Biblical sense, telling us he was going to do a version of the Bible! Although this wasn’t strictly the case, he did cover the history of the universe up until 2012, ending in a kind of armageddon – the finale being an ‘8 Mile’ rap battle between Jesus and Jack! Funny and technically impressive, as he performed over his backing track in perfect time.

The other contestant, Dave Selby, had a tough job following that, but soldiered on like a trooper. Although hampered by a Withnailian weakness, he entertained the crowd with a grim fairy tale delivered in a louche Dave Allen style. Quite distinctive! He made people laugh, and it help make it a contest – and should be applauded for his contribution.

Throughout the performances, Richard Carder, chief druid, held his hands over his ears, sitting next to the other two judges, like one of the three wise monkeys (hear no evil). The effect was unintentionally hilarious.

While the judges deliberated the dancers came on – like a pared down Pan’s People – doing very well in such a small space!

Then finally the judges returned and Master Duncan announced the winner – milking it for dramatic effect, X-Factor style – no surprise to hear it was Jack! He was called up, stumbling over a stool (life is full of unintentionally comic moments, don’t you find?) Duncan handed over the robes and Jack performed a poem, receiving a warm round of applause. He was clearly a popular choice.

Then the Bards of Bath present were called up – which I wasn’t keen to do, being ‘off duty’ and because the ceremony is so naff. We stood in a circle, held hands and Richard half-heartedly took us through the Druid Vow (x2) and an awen (x1). It seemed ludicrous in that setting, but has become ‘tradition’. Lords know what the crowd there thought of it all! The day after we perform a proper inauguration ceremony at the Circus – noon on the solstice: this is the time for ritual, not a night-club. It was a very poor attempt to create sacred space, and I suggested to Richard the next day that we skip this element.

Miranda, who embroidered the Bardic robes and Chair backing, said to me it had lost its spirit – no mention of the solstice, or what it all means. A fair point. Tim, its much-missed founder, had a knack of relating to widely different audiences. Richard, who took over as Chief Druid, should have gone up at the start and introduced things, put it into context, but he was late arriving. I wonder how many people who came along that night realised what it was all about…? In hindsight I could have done some leaflets to place on the tables – a little background about the Bardic Chair, or had my Book of the Bardic Chair on sale… (if I hadn’t been stupidly busy over the last few days). Still, it was a ‘successful’ night – a good atmosphere, some great performances, and a promising new bard. Whether we like it or not, the Bardic Chair has a life of its own now – and looks like it will continue, in one form or another – with new blood revitalising it every year. And since the next generation are our future, garnering their interest is essential for the Bardic Tradition’s vitality and longevity.

If Dr Who can have a young actor fill the role (Matt Smith hailing from my old home town, Northampton) then perhaps we can too! As with the super-annuated Timelord, the subsequent inheritor’s of the title, have become increasingly younger (like Merlin, or Benjamin Button, living in reverse). Our annual ‘changing of the bards’ has become as much a part of the modern Yuletide celebrations (in Bath) as RTD’s rebooted Who has on Christmas Day telly – but of course, our entertainment is live, grassroots and community-focused. Long may it continue.

As I left it started to snow.


Jack Dean, the new bard, and Master Duncan, outgoing bard

The following day – the ‘official’ solstice – a small group of us gathered in the Circus in the centre of Bath to hold our traditional winter solstice ceremony and inauguration of the new bard. It was freezing and icy underfoot as I made my way (carefully) to the Circus, through the crowds of Christmas shoppers. I got there at noon to find Richard the druid and the two bards, outgoing and new. That was it. We were joined by Thommie Gillow, the 12th Bard, her wee bab and a couple of her friends from Cardiff. So, our small and merry band set to work. Richard led the ceremony of ‘Alban Arthuan’, as modern druids like to call it, and kept it mercifully brief. We used scripts, which isn’t my preference, but they helped since most of the participants had little experience in such things, but they all joined in in good spirits. We called the quarters: I had to call the east, my usual (Richard didn’t even ask, knowing that’s my preference – although on such a chilly day, calling the fire in the south would have been a better option!). We recited the Gorsedd Prayer and did an awen. Jack was welcomed to the Gorsedd and asked to perform a poem. Master Duncan also shared one. Halfway through the ceremony, Thommie suddenly dashed off, as though filled too full of awen – a traffic warden had spotted her car! She caught him just in time, but had to move it. All the while, her little toddler never made a sound but just stood there, with enormous gloves on, looking astonished (the default look of toddlers). Richard brought the ceremony to a brisk end … I suggested three cheers for the new bard (although in the cold, it came out as ‘three chairs’!). I took a couple of photographs for the press release and archives and then we separated, leaving only Richard and I to decamp to the Chequers for some much-needed refuelling… It’s been a Bard Day’s Night!

Sulyen Caradon, Druid of Caer Badon


And the bardism does not end there – tonight is the tenth anniversary of the Bath Storytelling Circle, which should be a special evening. I am going to be one of the three hosts, as one of the organisers of the circle (along with Anthony, its founder, and David, its current ‘chair’). There should be a feast of fine storytelling, poetry and song … what better way to spend the longest night of the year?

The oral tradition is very much alive in Bath … but don’t tell anyone I told you so ;0)

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.

Journey of a Bard

As a bard I follow what I call the Way of Awen. Awen is a Welsh word meaning ‘inspiration’. For me, being a bard is  not just something ‘weird I do at the weekends’ but it is a my life path. I perform professionally as a storyteller, run workshops, give talks, host events and judge contests – but that is only part of it. That’s the public part – and constitutes only, say, 10% of a bardic life. The other 90% of the time I am journeying both outwardly, to sacred places, places of inspiration and renewal, and inwardly, into the well of imagination – the deep place I have to go into to write, to bring something new into the world. So, when I’m out of sight I’m reading, studying, teaching online, writing, composing, rehearsing, relaxing, socialising & remembering to eat, sleep and play!

Recently I secured a contract for my new non-fiction book The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, and as part of the process of writing it, I am keeping a journal. My thoughts and feelings go initially into an actual physical journal which I can take with me on field trips, as below (I know you can use a laptop, but I prefer pen and paper when I’m in nature). This blog will give me a chance to share something of ‘the journey of the bard’ along the way. A journal is, as the name suggests, the perfect place to record a journey. Journey, of course, is originally a French word: ‘One journey meant one journée, a full day’s march, perhaps thirty miles.’ (Sahara, Marc de Villiers) Every day we live, we go a little bit further along our journey, even if we don’t physically move out of the house! Much of my writing here is based upon actual trips to places, either as part of my research or as part of my life as a working bard: gigs, talks, events. I hope you find it, at least, mildly distracting – and if it inspires you to visit these places, find your own ‘awen-zones’, or even walk the Way of  Awen yourself it would have served some good.

See you along the Way,

Awen Always,


Tallyessin and the Way of Awen

Tallyessin and the Way of Awen

A New Awe

The Way of Awen is about seeing the nascent wonder of the world, the miracle of every moment. It is Blake’s opened doors of perception – when everything is shown as it truly is, infinite. Truly, awe is at the heart of awen.


Sunday 1st June, 2008, Brownsea Island


Here on Brownsea Island – on the south coast of England – in the second largest natural harbour in the world I begin my book on the Way of Awen. It feels like a good place to start: Baden-Powell sowed the seeds of his international youth movement here, and there’s perhaps something of the ‘bad boy made good’ through rites-of-passage in Gwion Bach, the originally hoody! One could imagine him as a hoody these days, a ‘menace to society’ to a master bard via his journey to Deganwy. He has a long way to go before he can call himself a bard. He may have spent a year stirring the cauldron but the hard work that makes a boy into a bard is about to begin. He has scalded his fingers in the three drops splashed on his hand (like the three rays of awen) and imbibed the potion of inspiration meant for Afagddu – he’s had the ‘overdose’ of awen, which has released his potential, but now he has to fulfil it. First, he has to escape the wrath of Ceridwen: he has split her cauldron in two! (a kind of Caesarean; the waters have broken – but he is not yet ‘twice-born’). Realising he’s in hot water he hightails it out of there in the form of a hare, thanks to the power of shapechanging he has gained from the potion: the druidic gift of fith-fath. The chase is on!


The Changing Man

The way of awen is about the ability to change. All real journeys change you. If you are no different from when you set out then no real journey has been undertaken. For Gwion to become Taliesin he must undergo the journey of the bard or he remains simply Gwion. The process began for him with the seemingly monotonous hard work of cauldron stirring (symbolic of the sexual act – Gwion’s spoon a wooden phallus; Ceridwen’s cauldron her labia/womb – leading, eventually, to the ec-stasis of orgasm?). he had to put in the graft, in the hours and elbow grease. Such rhythmic activity can be trance-inducing. Watching the spoon turn and turn, hypnotic (love spoons are a traditional gift in Wales to a sweetheart). A spoon is not dissimilar to the shaman’s beater, as well. It would alter Gwion’s hyperactive adolescent brainwaves from alpha to theta – to a state of mind conducive to making lateral leaps, from hare to salmon, salmon to tiny bird, to grain of wheat: meta-state metamorphoses. Gwion must become the changing man.


(While I wrote this, one of the wandering peacocks which had been eyeing my  vegetarian Sunday roast leapt up onto the table and took at a greedy stab at my pie with its beak – plunging it right in! This impertinent bird could be seen as a kind of Gwion – who gobbles up the drops of awen meant for disadvantaged Afaggdu – but the truth was the bird wasn’t a peacock; it was a pea-hen! It seems the filching of a man’s ‘chips’ is endemic to the female, whichever the species!)


Monday, 2nd June, Isle of Purbeck


Here at Burnbake, on the morning after the Wessex Gathering I prepare to take to the road. Last night I ran the bardic cabaret around the campfire, which went well. It’s always a popular night – everyone’s chance to shine. I summoned some bonhomie from somewhere and played the congenial host, but in truth after my day out on Brownsea Island I was in a better mood than when I had left the camp – wearied out by being around people. I started the cabaret by invoking both the awen and Taliesin, with my ‘Song of Taliesin’ – to inspire the performers and audience. It all begins with Penbeirdd. It is his shining example, quite literally, which inspires all on the Bardic Path. He walks by our side – all the way to Deganwy.

            (from here, on the south coast of England, to North Wales, it’s a winding 255 miles – but it’s the spiritual and transformational distance which is the most significant).       

            First we need the alacrity of the hare – to flee ‘Ceridwen’s wrath’. As I sped off on my bike yesterday I felt like Gwion the hare. It was an exhilarating feeling. Sometimes it’s the best thing to do: if a situation doesn’t agree with you, just leave. No point enduring it, for the sake of it. (or exhaust ourselves trying to confront it, change it, etc). We often put up with too much – feeling it’s our lot to grin and bear it – our masochistic culture. As Brit’s we don’t like to complain. Make a fuss. Cause a scene. So we suffer in silence. Stew. Stagnate.

            So with Gwion the Hare’s speediness, it is time for me to strike camp and hit the road – hightail it out of here, jinking to confuse my ‘pursuers’, non-literal, right-brained leaps of logic. Hare-brained.


Stopped off at Badbury Rings on way home – a fairy place, full of deep peace, the consoling green of trees, everything fecund, heavy with summer… After the hustle and bustle of a public event it is essential to ground yourself and recharge the bardic batteries. Replenish the cauldron. Before speech, silence. After speech, silence. Return to the sacred silence. Let the buzz of voices, of personalities and opinions, fade away, until you can hear yourself think again.


9 June 2008

I catch the silhouette of a heron flapping its way across the fading glory of sunset


12 June 2008

Awen is universal – which is not surprising since it is ‘flowing spirit’. One thing it is similar to is Grace – possibly not the first definition of the noun (‘unmerited divine assistance given to human beings for their regeneration or santification’), although there’s elements of that – but certainly the second (‘a state of being pleasing to God’); and also ‘a charming trait or accomplishment.’ When one performs and the awen is with you, it feels like a state of grace – it comes through when we act gracefully and at the same time makes us act so. John O’Donohue, in his book Divine Beauty said ‘real presence is natural’. When we shine we are fully ourselves – the soul-light pours out of every pore. And yet, however desirable, its ways and appearances are mysterious: ‘No one set the limits on the flow of grace. Its presence and force remain immeasurable and unpredictable.’ It comes and it goes. Sometimes it is indisputably with us – when we are ‘on fire’. Sometimes, it is not. We ‘die on our feet’. All we can do is make ourselves willing channels. As Shakespeare said: ‘the readiness is all.’ I call this state ‘creative preparedness’. We create the frame for it to manifest – we become the field of potential.


14 June, Flag Fen

I sit by the Mere at Flag Fen. It is a sunny afternoon. I hear the conversation of birds, the fen winds soughing through the reeds in the lake, the willows on the shore. Clouds move with stately grace across the sky like ocean liners leaving port. Ripples undulate across the surface, giving the illusion it is going somewhere – busy about its business – when in fact it is staying put, protecting the remains of the ritual island and causeway beneath it. Stillness. Peace. Bliss. It is good to have arrived.


I’m here at this Bronze Age ritual centre to host the inaugural eisteddfod to find the Chief Bard of the Fens, organised by Jody Copestake and the Ancient Muse team. It was an honour to have been asked. Previously I have hosted the Lammas Games Eisteddfod and been involved in the Bardic Chair of Caer Badon in my home city of Bath. Bardic Chairs are springing up all over Britain. Next month there’s one scheduled in my old home town of Northampton, just down the road from here – in my old haunt of Delapre Abbey. The area around Flag Fen was the stomping ground of so-called peasant poet, John Clare, one of my literary heroes. I made a pilgrimage to his grave in nearby Helpstone in 1992, the year of his bicentenary, and took part in poetry readings around Northampton in his honour (Clare was to spend the last quarter of a century of his life there, incarcerated in Northampton County Hospital and Lunatic Asylum. On day-release he would wander the town and hand out poems to passers-by, written on the hoof and lost forever). In Helpstone graveyard Clare’s modest memorial bears the inscription: ‘Poets are born and not made’, but the last letter is worn away by the centuries  and so it seems to read, ‘Poets are born and not mad’…And yet it seems to come with the territory. To want to be a poet is perhaps a sign of madness. There’s at least a couple of places in Wales, where, if you hazard to spend a night you could end up ‘dead, mad or poet’. Well, having climbed Cader Idris and made pilgrimage to Bedd Taliesin half a dozen times by now, I must have come down a ‘dead mad poet’!


In my introduction to the contest I suggested Clare should be made Honorary Chief Bard of the Fens. This would be a respectful gesture, for Clare was the Fens poet-of-place par excellence. He witnessed the Enclosures Act first-hand and was able to sing its subtle beauty with far more authenticity and intimate knowledge than many of the Romantic poets on their high horses – for he worked on the land as a labourer; his hands and feet knew it. Psycho-geopgrapher Iain Sinclair and East Anglian storyteller Hugh Lupton (with Chris Wood) have honoured the poet in their own distinctive ways, and I featured Clare in my first (and still unpublished novel), The Ghost Tree, written 1992-1994. One of my first published poems was about Clare in a local anthology of Northampton Poets. Knowing this bard of quiet beauty on my doorstep inspired me as a young poet, setting out on my own journey.


…I believe (the way of awen) is about living in the flow all of the time. When we’re not – that’s when it goes wrong. This current book deal came about because I was ‘in the flow’. It all fell into place – though not without a little nudging. The Way of Awen is not about just ‘going with the flow’ – it is about knowing the flow. Being proactive, rather than reactive. About hooking into the current of life and responding to its vibrations, its variations, a spider on the web of life!

            A moor-hen just flapped madly through my legs and shot out onto the lake in a flurry of wings and white water: Awen!

            The WoA is about finding inspiration in unexpected places! It is the craft of inspiration – not waiting for it, but seeking it in every moment, fully present. Living life as though one is a character in a tale from the Mabinogion, journeying through a landscape of vivid symbolism. It could be called lucid living, akin to when we know we are dreaming – being fully conscious of being alive. In the moment. In the Awen.


Later, by the fire in the roundhouse

It begins in fire and shadow… Afaggdu and Creirwy… Utter darkness and fair face… The primal darkness and the primal spark… I write these words by firelight in a Bronze Age-style round house at Flag Fen. I enjoy the fruits of my efforts: a bed earnt by my bardic efforts, a fire built by my own hands. The grey matter of thought placed, twig upon twig, stick upon stick, branch upon branch, until the vital spark occurs. The spark at the kindling is akin to the Divine Spark.

            The fire around which the people gathered to keep the night at bay, the day’s work done. The storyteller’s fire. Ancient and timeless.

            In the Taliesin story fire is fundamental. First there is the cauldron in the iron house – heated and escaped from by the chthonic deity, Tegid Foel and his giantess wife.

Strange and awkward – the embarrassing relatives. They stick out in the Taliesin tale – not quite fitting in with the rest of the narrative, Tom Bombadils. What does it mean? We’ll return to those later…

            And then there’s the fire that cooks the potion of inspiration. Stoked by Morda the ancient of days, and stirred by Gwion the little boy. For a year and a day. Imagine the dedication. The tedium. The trance-inducing monotony that leads to a flash of inspiration. Its like any long-term project that you have to keep chipping away at, any reward a long way off. You need staying power. The journey, not the destination. Process, not goal. Attention to detail along the way. Of course, fire is the element of transformation, of quickening. We all get a chance to shine.


I went to say hello to my neighbours in the other Bronze Age roundhouse – a small group of family and friends – and one of them turned out to be Robin Herne, whom I didn’t know but had heard of. We had a pleasant evening, chatting by their fire and they were most hospitable, offering me a welcome vegetarian alternative to the BBQ organised for those on site. I returned the favour later with some Guiness after the session in the large, less smokier Iron Age roundhouse. I thought there was something special about the man, a spark in his eye, for the next day Robin was to win the Eisteddfod, as judged by Bobcat, Ben Haggarty, Albion Conclave’s Stefan Allen and a Flag Fen representative – the Awen was with him! It needed to have been – for it was a tough contest, the standard was high, and the day went well. Yet I had a long ride home, and the heavens opened as I left. Fortunately, after a pitstop in Northampton at my Mum’s, the skies cleared and the rest of the ride home, over the Cotswolds, was pleasant as I raced the sun into the West.


Solstice Madness in the West Country

18-22nd June

Very full-on solstice few days, typical of the season. Midsummer madness! Everything intensifies around these festivals, and the full moon didn’t help.

19th Book launch in Glastonbury at the Cat & Cauldron (kept waiting, but only because it was a pleasant atmosphere – Trevor wanted to give folk plenty of time to mingle…but it didn’t help me to relax. I found it difficult to enjoy until afterwards). A meal afterwards in The Hawthorn, courtesy of Trevor and Liz, which was nice of them.

21st-22nd: Alice in Wonderland show at Tyntesfield, National Trust – Sat & Sun. 4 20 min sets: White Rabbits, Red Queens, Mad Hatters, Terrible Twins. Fearsome Beasts. All the way to Bristol and back, then back to Bristol in the evening. (Picked bike up at 4pm from Croscombe Mill Garage). Cosmic Acoustica gig, Bristol – Oisin and Niamh, and Dragon Dance, which went very well. It was worth the effort of getting there – a magical, awen filled evening of beautiful music and poetry. An excellent kora player, a good singer-songwriter and a spectacular performance poet called Analiese, whom I connected with, already we didn’t seem to get off to a good start. When I arrived there in my bike leathers, she was by the door – turned, and exclaimed ‘Oh god!’ The heavens opened in the middle of the evening, and the sky flashed with lightning. It was indeed, a dark and stormy night…Atmospheric, but I had to ride back in the storm. Not fun. Could hardly see. Had to ride almost by intuition. If I had gone with the flow it would’ve been easier to stay over in Bristol. Exhausted the next morning but had to go in – it was touch and go whether it was going to happen or not, because of the dodgy weather. Was praying for a call to say it was cancelled, but no such luck. Had to drag my sorry bones out of bed (so wanted/needed a lie-in that morning) and get to Tyntesfield. It was actually a pleasant day. Breezy, but sunny. And had punters! Not loads, but enough to make it seem worthwhile. Did six slots in the end (to make up for the two missed yesterday due to lack of audience). Felt like the white rabbit racing back and forth: ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’

23rd: We said farewell, and I returned to Bath and finished my OU marking. It was a day to tie up loose ends before I headed for the mountains.

24th: Freedom! I spent the morning packing, and was off by around 1pm. I was prepared for the long haul. The weather stayed kind and got to Corwen by just before 7pm, after a couple of stops on the way. It was a nice ride up. Traffic flowed okay and bike ran sweet.


Off to the mountains…!


25th June

I have embarked upon my journey to Deganwy – and I’m nearly there! I set off from Bath yesterday – relieved at finishing my duties and commitments – and had a good run in the sun up to Corwen, right in the Welsh heartland with its magnificent statue of Owain Glyndwr seeing off the English. This charming place was the adopted home of my literary hero, John Cowper Powys, who rendered his own vast version of the historical legend. Stopped to pick up some supplies and called Kirsten to let her know I was nearly there. Didn’t reckon on the obscurity of the location and the really steep lane to get there! Eventually found Kirsten’s place – Hafotty Gelynen – a smallholding she’s staying at near Maerdy, after one wrong turn and several steep tracks. It was great to see a friendly face at the end of the track, waving as she opened the farm gate. Last time I saw Kirsten was in London, I think. She’d organised a bardic workshop for me at Treadwell’s, Covent Garden. And now I’m working on a new bardic book. Finally I can stop. It’s been relentless until now. Last night was lovely sharing stories, songs and poems over a bottle of organic mead from Glastonbury. Kirsten cooked the food over a campfire, despite the intermittent rain (using vegetables picked fresh from their poly-tunnel) and we sat outside, enjoying the view until the rain had other ideas. Then she brought the fire inside, using a shovel to transport the logs, practical woman! And we got cosy by the burner. So satisfying, having a real fire. It’s so conducive to camaraderie, conversation and contentment. The fire of awen crackled and glowed. Kirsten sang a spine-tingling version of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. I recited my version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ and my own poem ‘Heartwood’. Midnight came, eyelids drooped and I retired to my caravan, armed with fleeces and blankets. Its great to wake up in Wales. To open the double caravan door and be greeted by a vista of vale and mountain, rain-washed colours subdued, subtle and soothing.


As we had watched the snakes of flame we talked about serpents: Kirsten was going to have a Celtic snake tattoo to mark her move to Wales. I mentioned Lydney, the healing temple dedicated to the apparently unique Celtic God Nodens – dramatically situated on a wooded headland overlooking the Severn (several hound icons were found there – an interesting Ceridwen overlap). We agreed it would be good to spend a night there, sacred dreaming. Lydney is akin to Epiduaros in usage, Asklepios the Greek Nodens – associated with snakes: his caduceus still a symbol of medicine to this day. Interestingly it is also associated with Hermes, who held a rod – sometimes depicted with snakes and wings. Thoth: Hermes: Mercury – all brothers of Taliesin, I think. The penbeirdd is part of the same lineage, if not the identical archetype/deity/energy. The spirit of inspiration, of eloquence and communication, that ‘enters’ people so their words flow – like the waters of Llyn Geironydd, Lake Silvertongue, which I plan to visit.


Hermes’ rod, Aesculapius’ caduceus … healing words.


Dames said the ancient Welsh believed if a white snake was eaten all the tongues of animals would be understood. There is a Taliesin-type story about a boy who has a dream about a ‘green-garlanded god’ and receives the ‘hawk tongue’, the bardic gift – and perhaps a double-edged one, like the Tongue that Cannot Lie which Thomas the Rhymer received from the Queen of Elfland.


Llyn Geironydd, 25th June


I sit on the base of the stone erected for the Chief Bard of the West, by the glittering shores of Lake Language. Can’t believe I’m here – it was quite a journey! The roads here from Trefiw were very narrow, steep and slippery. Gravel and rain – the biker’s nightmare! And it’s not the easiest of places to find. There’s a dearth of signage, as though the locals want to keep it for themselves. I initially ended up at Trafnant, but I was going in the right direction. Always trust your instincts! If yesterday was like being a hare, hightailing it to the hills, then today has been like being a salmon – riding in the rain, winding my way along the serpentine roads, which shadow the water courses, returning upstream, higher and higher, against all odds, back to the source – to Taliesin’s birthplace. I’m home!


In Michael Dames’ Taliesin’s Travels (Heart of Albion Press 2006 – coming out after I had conceived of this book – one of those ‘in the aether’ things), which is superb for following the ‘Taliesin trail’ he writes: ‘He arrived at Llyn Geironydd entirely drained and literally speechless.’ This is how I feel after a very demanding first half of the year: book launches, gigs, eisteddfod, courses, making a living and dealing with death. I am ready to have some time off the wheel, some time away from the crowd, sometime for myself. Time to replenish the cauldron.


Llyn Geironydd is said to be the birthplace of the 6th Century Welsh bard, Taliesin. At one end stands an austere monument erected by Lord Willoughby in 17850 to the ‘Chief of the Bards. The remote lake was also the site of the poet Gwilym Cowlyd’s annual ‘Arwest’ – a cultural festival, ‘less Anglicised’ and formal than the eisteddfod. Held annually until 1927.  The Taliesin Festival has been held more recently. I was invited last year to perform in the ritual drama of Taliesin and Ceridwen by the poet Gwdihw (‘little owl’) but was prevented due to the floods of Summer 2007.


…A lake filled with silence. From this silence everything comes. This is where the Awen is born. First comes not the Word – but the Silence. The Taw. It is wonderful to listen to the gentle sounds of the lake, the trees, the wind. Peace is sacred. There is much to much noise in the world. White noise. Stopping us thinking straight. Unlike pink noise – calming and conducive to lucid thoughts, to deep wisdom. O, to spend a season here – to have a house here, on the shores of Llyn Geironydd (gay-ree-on-ith). To be plugged into this source. Hydro-powered Awen! Listening to the sacred silence.


Deganwy Castle


I arrived in Conwy in glorious sunshine and so decided to ‘make hay’ and headed for the castle of King Maelgwyn. It concluded my journey to Deganwy rather prematurely! But it was worth it (and in hindsight, a wise decision, as the weather turned for the worst for the rest of the week). It was absolutely stunning on top – spectacular views over the Conwy estuary and the sea towards Anglesey. I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful. Maelgwyn’s fortress always looked so forbidding in the photos, and maybe its just the associations: a stern ruler. Taliesin arriving in winter, a frosty reception. The scariest eisteddfod. Apparently, Maelgwyn would force bards (poets and harpers) to swim across the Conwy, presumably to cut the wheat from the chaff or to prove his power (an Alan Sugar of his day, making his wannabe apprentice’s jump through hoops) – only the poets could perform because it would be in their heads, whileas the harpers’ instruments would be ruined! Professional sabotage!

            The only way to the castle now was via a housing estate which crowds its flanks (what would Maelgwyn have made of this suburbia?). Maybe there’s a more direct route but it alludes me (another non-signed ancient monument). Place names like Castell Close give me clues. I parked my bike somewhat incongruously in amid the bungalows and took the footpath between them into the field. And there it was! I instinctively sat on rounded stone protruding from the nearest hillock rather than head straight there. I needed a moment to prepare myself, like Taliesin waiting to enter Maelgwyn’s court – it felt right to wait. On the other side the two hills (one rounded, one rocky – feminine and masculine?) I found the ruins of the gatehouse, at least the remains of one from the 13th century according to an inscribed sign: proof! This is from later than the Taliesin tale’s setting if not composition – contemporary with Edward Ironshanks’ ring of iron – but the site was probably in use for centuries (Conwy Castle was in military use until the 1700s). it holds such a strategic position, overlooking the Conwy and surrounding landscape. Standing upon top of this ‘Amon Hen’ one certainly feels like the King of the Castle – lord of all one surveys. It has a resonance of temporal power, of saturnine male energy – the dark father archetype. Taliesin as Luke Skywalker, Maelgwyn as Darth Vader here in this ‘Cloud City’: ‘Yes, (heavy breathing), I am your step-uncle!’ On the summit of the ‘male’ hill there’s a kind of dungeon – an open air, steep sided pit on the top. I spotted a rotting sheep carcase down there. One could easily imagine Elphin incarcerated there – in silver chains because he was the royal nephew after all. Maelgwyn is the stone king, par excellence – he rules ‘the world’ from his stern fortress crag, a fastness of Cambrian rock.


I will set out on foot,

To the gate I will come,

I will enter the hall,

My song I will sing,

My verse I will proclaim,

And the king’s bards I will cast down.

In the presence of the Chief,

Demands I will make,

And chains I will break –*

Elffin will be set at liberty.


Taliesin, ‘Journey to Deganwy’


Taliesin’s famous journey – undertaken at the age of thirteen – was with one prime purpose: the vindication and emancipation of Elffin, which could be seen as a metaphor for the freeing of spirit (Elffin/Elphin/Elf/Fairy/Fey – otherworldly energy). Liberty from the bonds of Maelgwyn – from matter. It is also his defining moment – his gorsedd of efficiency, as Morgannwg would put it. This is when he proves himself as a bard, against Maelgwyn’s best – and wins the Chair of Deganwy. Interestingly, in the above poem, it mentions the bloodshed of Arthur’s battle – at Badon (Caer Badon: Bath). Taliesin has fled from here, from the wanton slaughter, like Merlin, into the hills. I have ‘fled’ from Bath too! From the pell-mell of life. Weary, bardic batteries worn low. I would love to live up here, in the mountains, where you can feel the dragon in the land, and see it!


Blake wrote of the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ and railed against any form of enslavement. His work celebrates the emancipation of the imagination. We all need to find freedom from the bonds of matter, from the treadmill of work. Only Spirit can set us free, can completely fulfil us – for with matter, we always want more. There’s never ‘enough’. We have to find our Source, like Blake, from ‘Another Sun’.


Orme’s Head to Capel Currig


‘I seek what is lost,’

Taliesin, The Chair of Deganwy


Made it to Capel Curig – finally out of the rain. Everything is soaked. Even this journal got damp! And all my clothes inside the tail-bag! Thank goodness for the drying room! Now I have a cup of tea, some Welsh cakes in my and a lounge. Guess rain is to be expected in Wales, especially Snowdonia – but this monsoon has come suddenly. After waking up to rain pattering on my tent it cleared up, but I decided to go, thank goodness! Conwy Touring Park wasn’t that atmospheric (an old quarry?). The rules stipulated ‘no groups of bikers; only couples and families’, so I don’t know why they let me in then!

            This morning I went to Orme’s Head – rode around some of it on the Marine Drive, then visited the summit. Almost immediately the weather turned for the worse. So I had some lunch at the ‘Captain’s Table’ with the pensioners – the summit-restaurant had the ambience of a kind of Valhalla for OAPs. Awful muzak and kitsch Fifties décor. Aborted my full loop of the Orme and scarpered down the hill in the lashing rain to a town, where I took shelter in a pleasant coffee shop. Served by a nice local lass with blonde hair who made me think of Eurgain – Maelgwyn’s daughter – whose name means ‘bright’, ‘gold,’ ‘gloriously radiant’ (Taliesin’s female equivalent, says Dames). I decided to visit Bryn Euryn (‘little gold coin, gold jewel, darling’) which seems etymologically connected to Eurgain. This was a revelation – showing a different aspect of Maelgwyn (like Olwen – the flower-maiden daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden, the father-in-law from Annwn). On one level Maelgwyn’s bright, golden daughter is literally that: his monetary wealth. This is the prize the bard who convinces Maelgwyn of his merit – Maelgwyn a kind of Dark Age Alan Sugar to Taliesin’s bardic apprentice. But shining-browed Taliesin chooses to be ‘fired’. He wins the contest but does not seek the hand of Eurgain (your-gain?). Elidyr wins it instead. If Eurgain is symbolic of fortune (the Goddess Fortuna?, Lady Luck), then Taliesin’s choice shows he knows what true wealth is to the authentic bard – not Maelgwyn’s bright-gold, but the Way of Awen. He turns his back on worldly riches. Only to the Muse-Goddess does he belong.


Eurgain it is said:


‘set the candle to the wild birds to show her lover the way to Wales


An amazing, arresting image – echoing the enchanted birds of Rhiannon, and perhaps seen in the flame-coloured red kites that have come back to the valleys of Wales.


It seems Maelgwyn’s prophesised death is connected to that which he hoards and lusts after:


‘A most strange creature will come from the sea marsh of Rhianedd.

As a punishment of iniquity on Maelgwyn Gwynedd;

His hair, his teeth, and his eyes being as gold,

And this will bring destruction upon Maelgwyn Gwynedd.’


As in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, gold is eventually the downfall of all men who crave power and immortality. This prophecy might be referring to Y Fad Felen, the yellow plague which broke out in 547 AD across Wales.


Visited Caer Eurgain in the pouring rain  – meant to be connected to Taliesin, but this seems spurious fancy. Locals refer to it as Derthin, the Bear Fort…Certainly felt surly, brooding, massive shoulders hunched against the rain. If the bear-bard was here, he was hibernating.


Pennies from Heaven…The relentless rain has made me stop and take stock – as I hung my clothes and biker accoutrements to dry. Warmth, shelter, peace, a warm drink, hot food, a soft bed – these are true wealth. I succeeded in my quest – I made it Deganwy – and, so far, I have lived to tell the tale…


(earlier I had a potentially nasty confrontation with a van as I tried to make my way up the ridiculously steep roads to the obscure YHA. The van appeared suddenly around a blind bend. I was only going about 20 miles an hour and I’m always careful on country roads, slowing right down if I can’t see what’s around the corner. A combination of gravel, rain, narrow road and fatigue made me take a spill – the bike nearly went under the front wheel of a white van which had come hammering around the corner. It stopped … just in time. I was undamaged – thanks to my protective gear – and the bike seemed okay. It started up again. The guys helped me back on and where apologetic. Relieved, I rode off. Later I discovered the front headlamp was cracked but I mended it with some wire and black tape – adequate to get me home).


I discovered to my annoyance it wasn’t even the right road (the YHA had an absence of signage). When I eventually found the right road, the way got steeper and steeper until, beaten, I had to stop the bike and walked up the hill, to scout ahead. Nothing in sight. I asked a local woman, who pointed ahead…up and up. The YHA was a white speck on the mountain side. No chance, not on my jinny, loaded with gear. I gave up and headed for Conwy YHA. It was full up! I had a couple of cups of tea until 5pm, when I rang to Capel Curig, the next nearest hostel, to check there was a bed. And then, I set off, thru the driving rain…


I had wanted to visit the ‘Bard’s Stone’ the next morning, but nature and circumstance had other ideas.


The Way of Awen can be hard…But H Rider Haggard said: ‘There is no journey upon this earth a man may not make if he sets his heart to it.’


There’s some serendipity here though – Capel Currig was renowned for its harp-making up until the 17th Century. The village of the bards, hail!


After I had dried out, eaten, rested, settled in I went to the local pub to enjoy their open fire, real ales and Welsh whiskey – reading my enchanting De Lint novel, The Little Country, while gazing out at the flood waters…(from the heavy rains earlier –water always finds the quickest path).



28 June


I’m sitting in the caravan at Keith and Annie’s place, a small farm cottage in the rugged backcountry above Porthmadog, slowly waking up after a lovely night of food, fire and conversation. The awen manifests in such moments – in lively discussions between friends. Points of view expressed like synapses firing. In the love felt between old friends, kindly tolerant of each others’ foibles and quirks. It was great to get here and get warm and dry again after another near drubbing. The rain came again yesterday – instead of going up the mountain (toyed with climbing Snowdon) instead I went with the flow, revisiting Llyn Geironydd (to walk around it) and then Swallow Falls – this is the way of awen too. Rather than resisting the water – going with it. Make your enemy your friend. Attune to its element. Learn from it. Well, I think I have learned the lesson of rain now!


Bikes and Bards in Bala


Had a good run from Porthmadog to Bala via Dolgellau road and Trawsfynydd, which turns out to be a favourite blat-track for bikers, as I discovered upon arriving in the town: there were dozens of bikers there congregating outside a couple of the cafes on the high street. I had stumbled into a weekly bike-meet. I parked my humble 125 amidst the ranks of big boys bikes, and went to get myself a baguette and a tea. I didn’t get chatting to any of the bikers. Sure some of them were fine, but I dislike the snobbish machismo and clan mentality in the biking fraternity – the size of your penis seems to depend on the cc and make of your machine. Most of them seem middle-aged blue collar types, and the odd wannabe rebel executive. Not much edginess or bohemia really. Just everyone in their biker bling, their uniform of rebellion. Pretty harmless really. The wild ones grew old, had families, settled down. Now they have family estates or people carriers and bring their bikes out at weekends. To counter that, you have a nice camaraderie on the road – most nod or wave (can you imagine every driver doing that?). Some pull over, if they see you by the ride side apparently struggling (especially if you have L plates). A guy on a blue Yamaha Fazer pulled up by me on the windy Trawsfynydd road as we waited for some roadwork lights to change. We got chatting briefly – instantly friendly. I asked him where he was heading and he said: ‘Just following my wheels’, and roared off. Cool.


Anyway, it made an interesting atmosphere for it was Eisteddfod Proclamation day in Bala. Families were lining the High Street in expectation of the procession. I asked an old lady who explained it all, pleased to see my interest. A newspaper stand said: ‘New Bala UFO spotted’. Bikers, druids and aliens. It was the silly season alright! It was great to watch the procession when it finally passed – local VIPs, community groups, arch-druids in gold regalia, banner-carriers, a sword-bearer, a woman carrying the Hirlas Horn, another the Blodeuged, and the battalions of bards, ovates and druids in their blue, green and white. It was a real community affair, with the spectators people-spotting as much as anything, the locals enjoying it with a mixture of pride and good humour. This wasn’t a fringe thing – but the heartblood of the community, of the nation.


The ceremony was all in Welsh, of course, which was lovely to hear – especially the singing (there was also some beautiful harp-playing as the procession spiralled inwards to the gorsedd circle, taking their places). I spoke to Keith this morning about how singing spontaneously is a way of giving praise. I felt it at Tyn Llwyn (when I felt instinctively like chanting the awen when confronted with the stunning view – realising this is how the famous singing in Wales must have originated, as a natural response to the landscape) and I saw it at Bala green today, as the ranks of blue, green and white gorsedd members sang around the gorsedd stones. It seemed familiar from over a decade of attending such ceremonies in England – obviously very inspired by the Eisteddfod, itself largely the invention of a fertile mind – Iolo Morgannwg’s.


I sit looking towards Bala and its lake now – in a lovely little wooden seat, which I’ve had to ‘contest’ with a couple of local ‘fairies/pixies!, kids belonging to a large family gathering nearby (who have a marquee set up, a couple of BBQs and mean business!) interesting that I got them talking about fairies (because they were acting like a couple of cheeky ones) because the lake is said to be frequented by various kinds: including Plant Annwn (Children of the Deep) and the eponymous Y Twlywth Teg (possibly connected to Bala/Llyn Tegid’s own Tegid Foel). Tegid Foel is said to be the father of Taliesin and he has his own story-thread – Chieftain of Penllyn (where Gronw comes from, rival of Llew Llaw Gyffes for the love of Blodeuwedd) the five parishes around the shore of the eponymous lake. Apparently Tegid continues to dwell with his supernatural bride in the submerged ‘temple city’ below Bala’s glittering surface. It too has a legend about a well that was negligently forgotten to be covered: ‘one evening the task was overlooked’. Thus, the spring, Ffynnon Gawr, still is believed to flow below the lake like the Well of Segais of Irish legend. Another tale says how a minstrel was told to play at a festival there, but a ‘bird lured him to the hill, where he fell asleep. In the morning he awoke to find Llyn Tegid covering the city’; and, most memorably of all: ‘on the lake’s surface floated his harp’, a haunting image reminiscent of the Bard of Thessaly, Orpheus’ head, floating with his lyre down the Hebron. Fishermen are said to see chimney pots and hear church bells on calm days, or after a thaw. Bala is also said to be the home of a monster, and a lost city! It seems its deep waters provide a dark mirror to people’s fantasies and fears. And yet its pure waters perhaps feed the racial consciousness here – the purest form of Welsh is said to be spoken in Bala. So today’s eisteddfod could not have been more appropriate. Bala’s deep streams inspire many to this day.


(last year I visited Bala for the first time, staying with Rowenna Williams, whose father owns the land through which flows the Stream of the Poisoned Horses, Aber Gwenwen Y Meirch – it was, in fact, a beautiful burn flowing through a wooded vale. I was honoured to be taken to it, and up to its source. I also walked down to where it flowed into the lake. Such places bring the legends alive).


28 June, Llyn Tegid


By the shores of Lake Bala, listening to its endless stories – a bottomless cauldron of myth and legend. Awen is like this deep and broad lake – an endless source of inspiration. It is always there, waiting to be tapped into. One just has to sensitise to it, sit, listen, wait…like a fisherman of words, wait for a line to catch. The Muse to bite. Lady of the Lake, lake maiden, goddess of the subconscious, mistress of dreams. Swifts dart like the shuttle of a loom, creating the warp and weft of lake life. Soothing song of the lake – let it work on your weary body, ease your soul. Hwyll to Taliesin’s father, Tegid Foel, and his ‘sunken city’ (the treasures of the subconscious).


A stone head below the water – ancient and mute. Raise it from the deep. Let it speak. What would it say? Would it talk of Tegid’s lost city, of monsters and lake maidens? How do we discern real dreams from false? Have they arrived to us from between the gate of horn, or ivory?


The lake must be replenished, otherwise it runs dry. It gives freely of itself to the river, while fed by many streams.


Over the last couple of years, while researching my book Lost Islands, I collected tales of ‘lost lands’ around the British Isles, of which there are a plethora. I particularly like the one associated with Cardigan Bay (Seithennin, the drunken steward and Cantre’r Gwaelod). Here is one I stumbled upon at Penmaenmawr: The Tale of the drowned palace


‘When the tide is low take a look over Trwyn-yr-Wylfa and towards the sea. It’s possible to see rocks in the sand. It is believed that these rocks were the foundations of a palace belonging to a wicked prince named Helyg. One day his wickedness was punished and the sea came in drowning his land and palace. Helyg and his family ran for safety to nearby Trwyn-yr-Wylfa.’


From Conwy walk guide pamphlet


29 June, Sunday  Aberystwyth


The Way of Awen is, among other things, about going with the flow and I certainly have done that today. Making a slow start at Pen y Bont campsite because of the rain and feeling slightly groggy – a good night’s sleep but one filled with dreams of lake maidens! I wended my way from Bala along the lake, stopping briefly at Llangower at midday, but the rain drove me on and I ploughed on to Machynnleth – over stunning scenery, no doubt, but in the driving rain I could see or appreciate it little. I had to completely focus on the road, although a tune did come to me as I rode, whether original or remembered I could not say. I passed by Cader Idris and made it to Mach, thawing out in a local café over some leek and potato soup. My fave place, The Quarry Café (run by the CAT people) was closed, so I had to go in a real local place – in my dripping bike gear. It was busy and the only space was sharing with a couple of folk. I asked if I could and they nodded. I got chatting with a fellow ‘biker’ – an Israeli girl who was cycling around Britain, which pit my own jaunt into perspective. I wouldn’t want to tackle these hills on pedal power! Refuelled, I made my way to Tre Taliesin – stopping off at the ‘Half way House’, with its hobbity waterwheel, and surely one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Wales – not large, but lovely, right at the divide of the Dyfi. It was easy to imagine a water nymph frolicking in the clear water – moon-pale skin, long white hair flowing over a svelte figure in a green velvet dress. I certainly could as I sat there, eating my cheese baguette and apple! I went on to Bedd Taliesin, paying my respects to the penbeirdd, reciting Dragon Dance in the mist on the mountain side. A hareglow grew from the grave. I felt a sense of stillness and completion. Then I blatted down to Borth, to the realm of Glyndon Garanhir. The waves rolled in – refreshing – but the place has a desultory air, the desolate feel of a seaside resort out of season, even though it’s late June and summer, apparently! Feels like winter! The endless rain is depressing and draining. It would’ve been a sad note to end my trip on – a feeling of flatness, rather than euphoria – so I followed a whim and rode along the winding, hilly coast road to Aberystwyth, which was a pleasant surprise, bathed as it was in sunlight under – finally! – clear blue skies! I parked the bike and walked up to the castle, and stood upon the gorsedd stone. Full circle! I’ve decided to stay the night – rather than slog it back. And visit the National Library tomorrow, and check out a couple of bookshops I’ve spotted. This is awen-town!


Wyrd epiphany in Aberystwyth


Stood on the end of the pier gazing along the sun road, thinking about the second half of the year and all the things I have to do… and about the Way of Awen – and it dawned on me what it actually is. Arriving in Aberystwyth and changing my ‘wyrd’ illustrated it brilliantly. Not just going with the flow, for that shows lack of will, a lack of ambition. It is about living by inspiration. Being spontaneous, in the moment, fully present, fully conscious – not just being blown by the winds of fate, but living consciously. It is just like a performance – rather than worrying what is going to happen next, trusting in the tale and your craft. Let the Awen come through you. If you worry, then you forget, then you stumble. It is about attaining a certain level of grace, of equipoise and equanimity. Living with dignity and wisdom.


Watched the sunset from a promenade bar with a sense of completion. So glad I stated – a gentle, satisfying end to the holiday, rather than a long slog home in the evening. I still have to do that tomorrow, but then I have a Monday mindset – a ‘back to work’ attitude. This is the first day I really felt like I had stopped and relaxed fully. I was overcome with tiredness earlier – it finally hit me, after pushing myself all week. I was too tired to head back yesterday. Besides, it’s not everyday I get to see the sun slide into the sea. This has probably been the first day that’s been possible for a week in Wales. Rainland! Still, I feel I’ve got what I came for. I’ve kickstarted my book. I’ve definitely embarked upon the Way – and gained insights along the way.


Now it’s time to bring them home.


Total mileage of journey to Deganwy: 698 miles – hardly ‘Long Way Down’, but enough for me this week.


1st July    Bath


I am back home after a long ride yesterday. Had a good night’s sleep and a hot bath and feel better – although I’m still stiff and it’ll take at least a day to recover. Mind is still ‘groggy’. Shows how tired I was – yesterday wrote ‘Shrewsbury’ on my bike directions instead of ‘Hereford’ and ended doing an 80 mile detour! And so the journey back took two hours longer – 7 hours in total since leaving Aberystwyth, although about an hour of that was taken up with pitstops. Guess I didn’t want to come home, for I was heading back to north Wales!


Now I have to assimilate what I learnt last week, and channel it into the book. I began this journal exactly a month ago, and have had some good experiences to get the Awen flowing. I could use extracts of this in my book, or use it to jumpstart the Awen (as in the Morning Pages exercise). The main thing is to let the Awen flow every day I’m writing it – would be lovely to be based in a cottage by Geironydd – rather than use loads of quotes. I want the text to flow, to come from embodied wisdom. From the heart, not the head.


6 July Bookbarn, Hallatrow


Sitting in the vast ‘raiders of the lost ark’ Bookbarn warehouse – Britain’s ‘largest secondhand book warehouse’ apparently – as the rain lashes down outside. The wild elements rage – and all we have to counter them, to placate these ferocious gods, are countless words. An elephants’ graveyard of books. Pile after pile. Aisle after gloomy aisle. A labyrinth of words. What minotaurs lurk there? Anyone brave enough to enter its endless maze was a possible Theseus. It was the kind of place you could lose your sanity if you took a wrong turning. Were there gibbering bibliophiles wandering these corridors, lost in their search? The odd skeleton of a bookworm? I could imagine doorways to other worlds here – each book a portal. It would make a great setting for a story, as I’ve noted in another notebook last year. How could such an inconsequential thing as a book hope to encompass the world? How can the frailest, most insubstantial of things counter such wild vastness, the unpredictability of creation? A bookshop is a good example of a practical manifestation of the Way of Awen. If one attempted to run through the shelves methodically (difficult when there’s only the vaguest attempt at cataloguing here) it would take forever and a day. Instead, it is best to trust to intuition. Often the first book you lay your hands on is the right one. I came here with the intention of finding a copy of Voss by Patrick White – and I found one, a lovely old ’58 hardback for £3. I used the computer catalogue to see if they had any Charles Williams, for I wouldn’t know where to start – where is there poetry section? It revealed they had a copy of Taliessin Through Logres at a snip for £90! I ordered his Selected Writings instead for a more reasonable but still pricey £12. A lad, possibly the boyfriend of one of the ‘book-muses’ behind the counter had to run the gauntlet to fetch it from the other barn. I waited in the café, enjoying a coffee while writing this. I wonder what other treasures lay undiscovered here? I carefully wrapped my finds and sealed myself into my biker gear. The ‘typhoon’ had eased, but it was still raining. Time to get home with my spoils from this book-Annwn.


Later, looking through Charles Williams’ rich bardic verse, I came across this quote.


But I was Druid-sprung;

I cast my heart in the way;

All the Mercy I called

To give courage to my tongue,

Charles Williams, ‘Taliessin’s Return to Logres’


This is all the committed bard can do – ‘cast your heart in the way’ and hope for the best. We must trust our hearts to the Way, and hope it will guide us through the vicissitudes of life. Ship of Awen, carry me through the storm!






Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour

Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour

awen - the spirit of inspiration

awen - the spirit of inspiration