Tag Archives: Snowdon

Rescue Dawn: Snowdonia

aka Rescue Dawn: Snowdonia

11-15 August

Llanberis Path from the Pyg Track

Llanberis Path from the Pyg Track

‘Help, I’ve come on holiday by mistake!’ These words, paraphrasing the classic Withnail & I, were ringing around my head as I prepared to leave Cae Mabon, Eric Maddern’s inspiring eco-retreat centre in Snowdonia. Having been up for the May Day weekend, I wanted to go back and experience the place some more. I was planning to go up first week in August for one of the open weeks, but circumstances prevented me. So, instead – unwisely as it turned out – I decided to go up the following week. A deep ecology group called Green Spirit were running what they optimistically called a ‘wild week in Wales’. I got the impression it was meant to be open to all and a chilled out, co-created thing, with everyone pitching in ingredients to the catering and the ‘programme’, so I understood from the blurb:

‘People who attend are invited to bring something they can share, like a workshop, stories, songs, favourite recipes, musical instruments…Ideas and suggestions are welcome.’

It turned out somewhat differently.

Feeling a bit ‘iffy’ on Monday I delayed coming up rather than ‘risk giving them all swine flu’ as I explained to Hilary, the organiser, over the phone. Perhaps I should have listened to my body and misgivings – and not gone at all – for I had a lot to get on with. But I felt summer was slipping by without me making the most of it, so I decided to cease my slothful whimperings and head for the hills. I woke up Tuesday morning, feeling full of beans, and did just that. It was long but lovely ride up in the sun, on what turned out to be the best day of the week. I took the Welsh Marches route and the last section of my journey through the Llanberis Pass was spectacular. After inadvertently taken a wrong turning and ending up on the first part of the actual Llanberis Path up Snowdon passing lots of amused and bemused climbers on my bike, I finally made it to Cae Mabon (I had been following Eric’s directions, which said take a left at the first roundabout when you reach Llanberis, which I did … but they turned out to be the directions coming from the North! After 6 hours on the road, I think I’m allowed to make this kind of dumb-ass mistake). Spaced out, but exhilarated at arriving, I rollled into the Cae Mabon carpark (which was going to become familiar – more later). It was about 2.30pm. I met one of the group on the way in, lugging my stuff down, sitting on the Pilgrim Bench overlooking the valley of Llyn Padarn, Llanberis opposite. Bumped into Hilary – they had finished lunch, but I was offered food. I said a cuppa would be fine, having had my sandwiches in Betws-y-Coed, where I stocked up on Welsh beer and a Welsh scarf, having left mine at my brother’s and feeling the chill on my neck as I rode along. I was handed a cuppa and an apple was made welcome – so far, so good. I dumped my stuff in the Chalet allocated me.

My home for the week at Cae Mabon - Black Sheep ChaletMy home for the week at Cae Mabon –                  Black Sheep Chalet

With its bunkbeds it’s not the most charming of Eric’s fabulous eco-buildings, (perhaps because the others are so beautiful, everything else pales in comparison) but I was glad of a roof over my head – and that I wasn’t sharing. At least I had somewhere to go when I needed ‘my own space’ – this became essential as the week progressed.

Hobbit Hut - Cae Mabon - opposite my chalet

Hobbit Hut – Cae Mabon – opposite my chalet

I chilled out, unpacked, read, then went for a swim in the lake (there was a warning about the blue-green algae but we all took care and were fine). I was told it was nude bathing, so I stripped off and dashed in, only to discover half the people there had costumes on. Ah, well!

In His Element

Skinny dipping in Llyn Padarn,

washing off the dust of the road.

Shocked awake

by its cold embrace.

After the resistance,

relief. It’s not so bad after all.

I bask in its stored sun

Boundaries challenged, blur.

The stream flows into the lake

to become one.

***

Snowdon beyond Llyn Padarn

Snowdon beyond Llyn Padarn

Dinner was at 7.00pm in the main hall. By this time, after my long journey, my stomach was making noises. I was ready to tuck in, but we had to all stand and sing ‘Grace’, Green Spirit style – some tuneless ode to Mother Earth. I brushed this off as charming eco-fluffiness, but it became apparent over the week that I had misjudged the nature of the group. Although coming across as a New Age green group, with ‘Creation Spirituality’ at their core – which I took as a take on Deep Ecology – it turns out they are mainly a bunch of Christian eco-fuddy duddies (not that I have anything against anything green, wrinkly or Christian – in small doses – I have a couple of good Christian friends and I’m planning to go on a pilgrimage to Iona next month for another, whose book I’m publishing). The average age of the group was 60. At 39, pushing 40, I was suddenly the ‘young ‘un’ of the group (and ended up feeling typecast as the ‘grumpy teenager’ all week – I can see why they get like that: disenfranchised, refused a voice, a vote, a chance to contribute). When we met at 4pm to plan a Council of All Beings ceremony I jokingly said, when introduced to the group – ‘So, is this the Council of Elders’. I wasn’t being rude. I had in my mind (mistakenly) that was the ceremony planned – which sounded good to me, as it might have served as a rite-of-passage as I approach 40 (next Wednesday). Alas, it was not the case. Another woman called Hilary (‘an Everest of Hilarys’ I suggested as a collective pronoun) decided we were all going to do this and take three days over it – this was accepted by the group without question. Suddenly the week was looking less ‘organic’ and co-creative, and more like a kind of Green Fascist Butlins. The first part of the ceremony was called a Truth Mandala, where there would be four quarters in which to share grief, sorrow, worry and not knowing. Having spent the first half of the year doing all of those things in abundance, I didn’t fancy spending ‘however long it takes’ wallowing in them on what was meant to be some light R&R in the lovely Welsh countryside. It was agreed to be ‘okay’ if you didn’t join in – I took their word on this – but, being the only one who opted out, felt something of the black sheep.

Basically, it felt like the unwritten protocol was ‘you can do what you like as long as it’s what we have planned’.

Later, I tried to establish what the rota was for cooking and washing up, but the answer I got was ‘we all just pitch in’. The notion of 14 people trying to simultaneously do these chores seemed a little absurd to me – and I wanted to know when I was ‘on duty’ so I knew when I was off duty. Instead each meal time turned into a possible guilt-trip. I decided to myself to would help once with each as my share, and that would be that. It was hard to find my footing, to find out what ‘The Rules’ were, for there certainly seemed to be some. Everyone else seemed to know them except me. When to eat, when to stand, when it was okay to offer a contribution to the ‘open mic’, when music was okay… I couldn’t discover how things were arranged – when all these rules were decided. They seemed to be no opportunity for negotiation…or for offering alternatives to ‘the programme’. Then slowly I discovered the majority of the group had been coming since the mid-Nineties. They were, except for one other, all old friends. I had ended up on a private holiday where everybody knew the jokes except I. I was in a paradigm ruled by a super-annuated oligarchy. It was like something out of the remake of the Survivors, earlier in the year. Welcome to Paradise. This is our way of doing things. You vill obey.

Now, I feel they are all probably good people – certainly pretty harmless – but just not my scene. Despite the apparent common ground they were coming from a very different place, which is fine – I’m all for accomodating paradigms in principle – but I don’t want to have it inflicted on me for a week, on my ‘hols’. My mistake, I know – although the website perhaps gives the slightly wrong impression. I imagine I may well become a green wrinkly one day – and certainly risk becoming a grumpy old git – but not yet I hope!

In the roundhouse later I was looking forward to a loose ‘bardic circle’ of poems, songs and stories. To my surprise I was handed a song sheet…which in the dark, without my glasses, I couldn’t read even if I wanted to. It was all very Sunday School. I don’t mind the odd person doing a tuneless song (everyone else had head-lamps to read the song-lyrics by – like a Dalek choir) if it’s the best they can offer around the campfire – but when you are more or less expected to join in, it becomes quickly tedious. Then someone read out a long ‘poem’ by Les Barker (the Benny Hill of poetry), who should be put on trial for crimes against poetry – what could be called versicide. I once had the misfortune to see him at Priddy and was astonished by how popular he was. It is clear that the masses have no taste, except for what they are spoonfed (‘the public wants what the public gets’). Like the doggerelist if you must, but don’t make me listen to it! I had come to Snowdonia for enchantment in the mountains, not Pam Ayres meets Songs of Praise (Barker puts on a ‘knowing fool’ act – a faux naif style, which simply is a mask for truly awful poetry). I shared my Bladud story (my home town tale) and a couple of poems – to the green man and to Mother Earth, then I went to bed. I had other poems and stories I could have offered, of course, but never got a chance over the week … maybe I could have made an opportunity, but my heart went out of it quite quickly.

The next morning I took it easy, reading my novel and the manuscript of The Way of Awen, which I had optimistically brought up to proof-read (I managed about 74 pages of the 220). In the afternoon I gave the ‘Truth Mandala’ a wide berth, hoping to see Eric, the owner – but he was out and so I went for a walk in the area to try and wake up (I spent most of the week feeling sleepy – Cae Mabon is one of those Sleepy Hollow places – nod off against a mossy rock and you risk waking up 300 years later). I guess the journey and the last few weeks had taken their toll. But I had sufficiently recovered by the next morning to climb Snowdon, which I had been meaning to do for a number of years but circumstances had conspired against me until now. It is possible to walk up Snowdon and back from Cae Mabon in a day. I walked into Llanberis and got the Sherpa bus to Pen-y-Pass. From there I opted for the Pyg Track. I walked all the way back down on the Llanberis Path (boring on the way up, but offering spectacular views on the way down). Two hours up, two hours down – not that I was racing or anything. I went at my own pace, giving myself plenty of time to ‘stand and stare’. I spent an hour on the summit, savouring the experience. I had ostensibly gone up to ‘get in touch with my animal’ for the Council of All Beings. Snowdon is known as Eyri, the Eagle’s Nest, so I felt connected with the mighty bird as I gazed out across the void, the mist occasionally parting to reveal a vertiginous chasm (although the only birds I spotted was a seagull, eyeing me as I ate a Snickers, and an extraordinary ‘fat grouse’ –  perhaps this was my power animal! – who waddled about nearby, oblivious to the hordes swarming around the summit). Being on a mountain gives you a perspective on things – whatever the visibility. It felt great to get away and achieve this by myself – it had made the whole trip worthwhile, whatever else I experienced (or endured!)

***

Climbing the Mountain

It stands there,

always waiting for us.

Sombre, mute, magnificent.

Magnetised with all our expectations.

Looming over the hustle and bustle,

the tittle tattle,

calling to us.

White nodes of longing.

We spend half our lives

wanting to get there.

Half our lives trying.

And in the struggle, the

breathless slog,

when, red in the face,

puffing like a steam train,

we somehow keep going,

we are never more

fully alive.

All our efforts of life

are in that ascent.

Some flicker of belief,

a flash of vision,

sustains us.

Yet when we get there

we find

the misty summit so crowded

there’s a rota,

puffins jostling on a rock,

a teashop,

key rings, mouse mats,

people chatting on mobiles:

‘I’m on the mountain!’

Taking photographs,

filming fog.

Their holy grail is a cup of hot chocolate,

a flushing loo,

an oggy or bun.

A whistle blows, they leave,

back to the grind.

On the way up

they had passed by

the very thing they had

hoped to find.

Kevan Manwaring

14/08/09

***

Summit on Snowdon - misty mountain hop

Summit on Snowdon - misty mountain hop

I returned to Cae Mabon feeling great (if rather sweaty & sleepy). I showered, then soaked in the hot tub with a beer (Snowdonia Ale, from Purple Moose Brewery, ‘Bragdy Mws Pys’ or something, in Porthmadog). I was asked if I was still intending to join in with the ceremony the next day – yes, and I went and painted my mask in preparation, listening to some Sigur Ros on my laptop (the ethereal music of this Icelandic group beautifully expresses dramatic landscapes – mountains, deep valleys, glaciers – and thus, echoed my walk up Snowdon). Later, when dinner was served I asked ‘would anyone care for some gentle music to dine by?’ you would have thought from the reaction I got that I had suggested eating steaming faeces as a hors d’oeuvre. ‘Certainly not!’ one of them snapped and the others tutted and scowled in sympathy. ‘Could I put it to a vote?’ I asked, hoping for a little bit of democracy. One of them put their hand up in support – others might have felt inclined but clearly didn’t want to breach the party line. Shame I didn’t get a choice whether to listen to their tuneless warblings or not.

It was then I realised I had nothing in common with these people.

Fortunately, Eric was in and I took up a couple of beers. Having a chance to chat to him made up for a week with that lot. It was like breathing air in comparison. The conversation flowed.

Then late that night something dramatic happened which proved the final straw.

The only guy I really connected with out of the group was a chap called Don. At 3.15am he had some kind of seizure – crying out in pain and falling out of bed. This woke Ian, sharing the hogan, who found him unconscious. He was unable to revive him. Thus followed a surreal drama, made more so for being in the middle of the night when everyone was half asleep. The first I knew about it was waking up to go to the toilet at 4am (funnily enough Don had talked to me in detail about his prostrate problems that morning over breakfast). Maybe I had sensed the comings and going, but it was a call of nature that got me out of bed. However, as soon as I stepped out of the front door I was accosted by Richard, who briefed me on the situation and warned me to ‘stay out of the way’ for a helicopter was on its way. I said ‘I’m not planning to a do a circle dance, I just want to go for a piss if that’s okay!’ It seemed like I had spent the whole week being told what to do or not to do, and my patience was wearing thin. Having relieved my bladder I went back to bed, only to be woken up by the helicopter hovering over the site. Half asleep, all I could see were lights through the trees, which were being whipped into a frenzy. The sound was deafening. It was like a scene from a sci-fi movie, perhaps Forbidden Planet. Some monster was coming through the trees to snatch one of our number away. When it finally left, I thought it had taken Don with it and I wished him well. It turned out they hadn’t managed to collect him as the winch on the Sea King wasn’t working! They had to go back to the base to get another chopper! Just as well Don wasn’t dying of a heart attack, because their mistake might have cost him his life. Finally they returned and by now it was starting to get light. I was woken again by the incredible noise directly overhead. I pulled on some clothes and went outside to behold the helicopter hovering over the main circle. From it a medic was winched down, like some kind of spaceman in his gear – sharply contrasting the Iron Age-style roundhouse he landed in front of. Two other medics were already attending Don. By this point he had recovered a little and was able to be escorted out to the circle, where he was fitted into the harness and winched up with the medic and his enormous pack. And then the yellow chopper flew away into the morning light – a Welsh Rescue Dawn. Having read about Arthur being taken to Avilion to heal of his grievous wounds earlier (and discovered that Llyn Llyndaw beneath Snowdon is associated with the famous scene, when a barge comes with three queens to take the mortally wounded king to the Otherworld) I could not help see the mythic resonance of the whole scene. But it was upsetting. Don was the only one I really got on with – and now he was taken. The rest of the week was looking rather bleak. After a dreary day (the weather had worsened) with everyone in slow motion after a sleepless night, exhausted from the high drama and worry, I decided that I’d had enough and wanted to leave. I hated to leave ‘under a cloud’ but I couldn’t bear another night there with those self-righteous people. Don’s drama had brought us all together a little – through common concern – but it didn’t change what they were like. With everyone else taking charge, etc, I felt more the outsider than ever. I packed and lugged my stuff up to the carpark and loaded my bike. I went to see Eric before I left and again our conversation redeemed the experience. I felt I had connected with one human soul at least. Strangely chiming with the Arthurian mythic theme ‘streaming live’ into Cae Mabon, Eric was the picture of the wounded king. The last time I was up, he had recently injured his Achilles’ tendon – and it had got worse over months. Earlier that day he had gone into Llanberis for a doctor’s appointment and returned with a serious foot support, which looked like the kind of footwear Darth Vader would wear. He showed me the scar where he had received surgery – and it was refusing to heal properly. Yet, despite this, Eric’s ‘kingdom’ was far from a wasteland. Cae Mabon was going well – but it must be hard work to maintain and very difficult with such an injury. I had my own wound, I realised – and Don’s collapse and departure (possibly to the otherworld – for it seemed to be serious), brought it up for me. The prospect of this likeable man being taken so abruptly was a painful repeat of my various bereavements over the last five years. Hearing that he was out of the danger zone and possibly coming home made me feel a little better about leaving, but the Fates had other plans. All togged up and ready to hit the road, I turned the ignition and nothing happened. I tried various methods to fire up the old girl but nothing worked. Cursing my luck (so much for a swift exit!) I was forced to ring for my own ‘rescue’, via Green Flag. A garage from Caernafon was arranged. Unfortunately, as it was a bike, they weren’t able to send someone out until the morning. Aargghh! Reconciling myself to another night with the Green Wrinklies, I put basics in the caravan in the carpark (which Eric had suggested I could crash in if I couldn’t hit the road) and went back down to the site. It was dinner time and I was called in. Fortunately I had missed grace, if they had done it (I had pointed out to them that on Wednesday the dinner was late in coming and they were so hungry by the time it had arrived they had just fell to it without ceremony: I found this an amusingly endearing act of human weakness, but I feel my observation didn’t go down well). It seemed I was destined to put my foot in it with these people (on the morning I went to Snowdon I visited the compost loo, only to accidentally come across one of the ladies about her business. I apologised and quickly shut the door (no locks!) and used the next cubicle. I passed her on the way out and said ‘sorry about that’ but she just gave me a frosty look as though I had done it on purpose, that I was some kind of twisted pervo who got his kicks out of bursting in on ladies on the throne. Give me patience!) The final meal passed relatively painlessly, although the singing that followed seemed to rub salt into the wounds (‘Country Home Take Me Home’; ‘I Shall Be Released’…) I finally managed to get a word in edgeways, offering a poem of Don’s which seemed strangely apt, ‘Angel Wings’ from his book Moving On. Immediately afterwards, Hilary1 was called out by a text – Don was on his way home. I went up to the carpark and waited in the caravan – listening to some suitably melancholic Nick Drake. Finally Ian and June returned with our wounded adventurer and I helped escort him down into the site with my torch (it’s a steep path and perilous in the dark). I made the travellers drinks, and relieved that Don seemed well enough to eat and chat, I hit the sack. It meant a great deal to me to have someone, for once, come back, from the brink of death. It felt like I was meant to be there for that moment of his return – and now finally, I could leave. In the morning, after saying goodbye to Don after breakfast, the man from Gwalia (a nice scouser, with whom I blathered like a man just let out of solitary) Garage finally turned up and, quickly identifying the problem, but unable to fix it on site, we pushed the bike into the van and I was whisked to Caernafon (my own Rescue Dawn) where it was soon fixed (flat battery due to a dodgy connection) and I was finally on my way. It was lashing down but I didn’t mind: I was on my way home!

All good material, anyway ;0) When you’re a writer, nothing is wasted – everything experience is redeemable. However excruciating at the time, such experiences are, for a writer, priceless. Thank you, Green Wrinklies. I had hoped to find inspiration in Snowdonia, and I certainly did!

About to leave Cae Mabon - when my bike is fixed!

About to leave Cae Mabon - when my bike is fixed!

Talk in the Mountains

1st-4th May

Talk in the Mountains

You ask me, ‘Why dwell among green mountains?’

I laugh in silence; my soul is quiet,

Peach blossom follows the moving water;

Here is a heaven and earth, beyond the world of men.

Li Po, 8th Century

In Padarn Country Park, Snowdon in the background

In Padarn Country Park, Snowdon in the background

The Ecobardic Minifest was a small gathering exploring how we can use the Bardic Arts (poetry, storytelling, song-writing and music) to raise awareness about environmental issues), inspired by An Ecobardic Manifesto (co-written with Fire Springs) at Eric Maddern’s amazing place in North Wales, Cae Mabon – an eco-retreat centre founded in 1989. Eric, an Australian born storyteller who has put down roots in Snowdonia, was inspired by the manifesto and felt it warranted its own special event.

I travelled up with fellow Fire Springers, Anthony and Kirsty. Anthony gave me a lift from Bath – after a false start, waiting in the rain for half an hour at the wrong bus stop (it was May Eve and the Good Folk were already making their presence felt!). It was nice to have time to chat with Anthony, and then his partner Kirsty, on the long ride up. Our job was to keep Anthony awake with our conversation – a challenge for 6 hours, even for bards! We made pit-stops at the Cravens Arms and Oswestry before heading ‘into the wild’. The roads became increasingly dramatic as we headed into the heart of Snowdonia. The half-full moon seemed to be leading us all the way there (perhaps not surprising, since we were heading west but it was a reassuring ‘moon illusion’) Around midnight we paused at Pen-y-Pass, at the highest point of the Llanberis Pass, and got out to enjoy the magical moonscape. The golden section of moon sat on the dark craggy outline of the mountain, beneath a field of stars. It was a cold, clear night. Anthony drew my attention to the sound of the water running down the mountainsides, gathering in streams – skeins of silver on satin – near and far, their soft song countless murmuring echoes in the darkness. We savoured the acoustic spectacle, letting the place work its ancient wordless magic upon us. It felt right to pause at this threshold place – both physical and temporal, as we crossed ‘over’, for it was the witching hour of Beltane Eve, when the veil is thinnest. What could be a more dramatic portal than Llanberis Pass at such a time? This pause before the plunge was important – it helped us to adjust to the different reality we were about to enter. Three days of sacred time in a sacred place. The gentle magic of the water had helped us to smooth some of the brittleness of the journey. We were ready to proceed – completing the final stage in a kind of dream. Certainly the access to Eric’s place was like something from a Winsor McCay cartoon – Little Nemo in Slumberland, or perhaps more appropriately, Dreams of a (Welsh) Rarebit Fiend – as the car negotiated increasingly more absurd hairpin bends and slopes. Somehow, we made it to the small carpark – surreal in the middle of a wood on a mountain side – and lugged our packs down the fairy path into Cae Mabon’s magical kingdom, strange in the darkness, with only Anthony and Kirsty’s headlamps lighting the way. ‘Behold the shining brow!’ Anthony alarmed slumbering hobbits trying to locate our chalet. Eventually we found our cabin – Eric had kindly left on the lights – and we gratefully dumped our stuff. I cracked open a bottle of Wild Hare to celebrate our arrival/Beltane Eve and to help me get to sleep. It was nearly 3 am. I sat in A&K’s room briefly while we ‘decelerated’. After an exhausting journey – when we were all in danger of nodding off – now we suddenly felt (relatively) wide awake. As soon as we had arrived and had stepped out of the car, it felt like all the effort of the journey had been worth it – the fatigue had melted away. I felt like I could of stayed up until dawn – and see in the May – but I wanted to be able to function the next day, so I made myself go to sleep. But no sooner had my head hit the pillow, I was off into the Land of Nod.

Cae Mabon roundhouse

Cae Mabon roundhouse

Despite being so late to bed I was the first one up for breakfast – my stomach is the best alarm clock! I made my way down the path to the hall – enchanted by the beauty of the place in the daylight, beholding it for the first time. Cae Mabon consists of a small ‘village’ of eco-buildings: a cob-house, hogan, roundhouse, longhouse, hobbit hut, etc. Many had turf-roofs with blue bells growing on them. The shapes were rounded, organic, as though they had grown out of the land, responding to the aesthetics of place – the curves and kinks in the landscape with slate, wood, thatch. I can see why Cae Mabon has been named the best eco-building project in Britain. Seeing a place like this gives me hope for the future.

Cob-house, Cae Mabon

Cob-house, Cae Mabon

I met Martin – our incredible chef for the weekend – and Keith, a chippy who lives on sight. I got to have first pickings at his wholesome breakfast – fruit porridge, freshly baked bread, fresh eggs, gallons of tea – as the other participants started to appear.

We gathered officially at ten for our first meeting and discussed what we wished to do over the next three days. The weekend programme evolved in a very organic democratic way. Eric had a gentle hand on the tiller.

We agreed to create a ceremony to celebrate Beltane (May Day) later that day, but the morning was given over to a general discussion about Ecobardism – triggered by Anthony’s excellent ‘keynote’ speech. After the first of increasingly superlative meals, we had a session on ‘Mapping the Fields’ – the territory of Ecobardism. Basically what it means, what it involves, what it tries to tackle.

After this brainwork, we set to work devising our ceremony…

Eric, in his ‘creation myth’ of Cae Mabon, wisely writes:

‘One thing that is common to many groups is the creative use of ritual and ceremony. It seems that for many the old religious rituals do not serve any more. But they cannot dispense with ceremony entirely.

‘The impulse to ritual – the symbolic use of words and actions to intensify experience, to create meaning and to dignify the individual – is deep. In a place like this it is possible to devise rituals that pay homage to ancestors, that honour Nature, that appreciate beauty, that draw on traditions, that reflect the life stories and dreams of the people involved.’

We discussed what elements we wished to include: a honouring of the Green Man and the Goddess; contributions of poetry and song; the four elements; use of the immediate environment as a ritual landscape; Welsh May customs, including a lighting of a sacred fire from nine native woods, the procession of the Cangen Haf, the Summer Pole, and a Welsh Calan Mai carol. These later, indigenous elements, were given authenticity by the presence of two Welsh speakers – Gwynn, a man from the north and Angharad, a woman from the south. Because of arrivals and departures around 5pm we had a finite amount of time and a tight turnaround. We were given half an hour to prepare – select a branch from our chosen tree, gather rags for the Summer Branch, create a posy for the Spring Goddess, prepare the fire, etc – but the time limit galvanised us into action and it all came together really well. The spontaneity of the ceremony gave it a vitality – the spirit was with us. Eric gathered us in the roundhouse with a blast of his horn. He introduced the ceremony, speaking briefly about Beltane, before lighting the Bel-fire, onto which we cast our branches, one-by-one. Then we processed nearby, following the Summer Branch to the main outdoor circle, flanked by upright slate ‘megaliths’ and a tree stump carved with a green man. Here I asked people to connect with the Earth – by forming a circle as a symbol of the planet and feeling it beneath their feet and all around them. I performed my jaunty green man poem, One With The Land, which I had first performed for Beltane about seventeen years ago, ending with the declaration ‘we are one with the land’ as we bent down and touched the earth. Then we moved onto the stream side, where An gharad performed a beautiful poem in praise of Blodeuwedd, whose lovely effigy we could behold opposite, carved into the flank of an oak tree. Then we crossed Aber Fachwen (small white stream) to place the garland at the goddesses feet, before briefly communing with her as we passed. Then onto the grove of bluebells, where Eric asked us to connect with water as Eliot sang his lovely water song. Gwynn then shared his Calan Mai carol, before we tied our rags to the Summer Branch, stating our intention for the coming year. We ended with a suggestion from Kirsty, three cries of Joy as the Greek Nymphs used to shout on the Arcadian mountains: ‘Hara!’

Our Cangen Haf

Our Cangen Haf

The ceremony had flowed beautifully, and afterwards we were all buzzing. I felt like I needed to reflect on the experience and I went for a walk up to the waterfall, shown the way by Ken the Kiwi. I felt sensitized after the ceremony and the sun-dappled forest through which the white stream gurgled, seemed especially beautiful. Ken took me into Padarn Country Park, which Eric’s land abuts, to a viewpoint overlooking Llyn Padarn and Snowdon. Here I enjoyed the stunning view, before descending – much in need of a snack and a sit down.

We had an early evening chat while we waited for dinner – Eric regaled us with tales of his recent ‘bee-line’ around north Wales, travelling by foot, bicycle and horse to perform his ecoshow, What the Bees Knows, at various venues. His itinerary included walking over Snowdon and spending a couple of wild nights at Dinas Emrys and on Cader Idris – which he nearly got blown off of, but survived, coming down a ‘dead mad poet’ (the legend goes if you can spend a night on the mountain, you will come down either dead, mad or a poet). We were joined by a pleasant young American guy called Elias from Oregon. We partook of an excellent feast from Martin. Afterwards we gathered in the roundhouse for stories, songs and poems. Kirsty performed her funny First Nations dogs tale, Anthony shone with his ‘A Cobra Hissed’ literary recitation. Ellie sang a wonderful wolf-song, accompanying himself on his haung – a flying saucer style steel pan. I shared my Aristaios the Apiarist of Arcadia, story – which provided an entertaining way of exploring ‘why the bees are dying?’, a worrying contemporary environmental issue. It was late and it was smoky by the time I went on, so I don’t know if I, or the audience, were at their best by then (after 5 hrs sleep the night before and a full day), but the evening passed pleasantly enough. I chipped in The Child of Everything towards the end (round midnight?), my anti-GMO poem. Eric entertained us with some great eco-songs – notably his Long Time Coming cosmic ballad. But then I was ready for bed. It had been a bard day’s night!

The next day we packed a lot in – there was second intensive session of Mapping the Fields, a long session discussing Ecobardic Projects, a salmon feast and ceremony, and a hot tub. The highlight for me was performing my long poem Dragon Dance in the dragon snug, followed by a session on using ceremony and ritual in performance. It was powerful to do it on Beltane, in North Wales (where the dragon in the land is so evident) beneath a ‘dragon’ mountain no less, as Eric informed us.

the Dragon Snug - the perfect venue for Dragon Dance!

the Dragon Snug - the perfect venue for Dragon Dance!

The salmon feast is worth mentioning. A salmon became unexpectedly available, and Martin showed his culinary excellence in preparing for lunch – it looked magnificent. To honour its spirit, Elias played his bagpipes (a totemic variant on piping in the haggis). Afterwards, we performed a brief ceremony, casting its bones back into the stream – much to the distress of the onlooking cat.

Cae Mabon - a place of healing and inspiration

Cae Mabon - a place of healing and inspiration

We had a mini-session in the round-house, with Gwynn relating an amazing ecobardic epic, which we encouraged him to send to a radical Welsh poetry radio programme and try to get published. Eric treated us to a sample of his What the Bees Know? Eco-show, with songs, stories, poems and bee-facts. This prompted a discussion on the thin-line we tread with such shows between preacher and performer. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore this further as it was dinner time. Another magnificent feast from Martin – this time with a mountain of a pudding, dripping with ice-cream, which excited Elias into Homer Simpson-esque euphoria. He couldn’t wait long enough to finish his greens to tuck in.

That night, everyone was rather wiped out – so we didn’t have another roundhouse session. Instead, we had a free evening. The hot-tub was fired up and most of the men took the waters (the prospect of sitting in it naked with men somehow didn’t appeal to the ladies of the group!). It was wonderful to be immersed in the hot water underneath the stars and trees and the glowing moon, Aber Fachwen gurgling merrily passed. I recited The Song of Wandering Aengus to my fellow bathers to celebrate the magical moment. This seemed to fire up the young American with the ‘fire in the head’. Elias erupted skyclad from the tub to chase his two young friends who had been fire juggling, casting dancing shadows around time in the darkness. He seized the fire spear from them and swirled with it in the stone circle – the very picture of a young Celtic fire god. Lugh lives!

The last morning I was awoken by Anthony knocking. The meeting had started and everyone was waiting for me! I had overslept – and the meeting had been brought forward half an hour without my knowledge. I groggily dressed and dashed down to the hall, to grab a mug of tea and some porridge as we discussed our final activity: a story walk. Anthony pulled this together well welcome lucidity and alacrity. We each were asked to find a place in the locality to tell a story about, or recite a poem or song. I knew immediately what I wanted to use – a yew tree, for The Yew Tree of the Disputing Sons, a bleak Irish myth of eco-karma. I hadn’t rehearsed it – and now found myself with 30 minutes to do so. I was also asked to end the story walk with a ceremony! A good job a bard can think on his feet – and as last night’s naked hot-tub performance proved, he is never without material!

The story walk started with a poem by Liz Clarke, youth worker from Bath, who was there with her cute toddler, Lily, who won over everyone’s hearts – and became our ‘Mabon’ for the weekend, the golden child we should never lose within ourselves. Next, we processed up to the hives area, where a drainage pit had been dug. Here, Kirsty performed the story of the Green Children, from St Mary-in-the-Wolf-Pits, Suffolk. A few yards on, I performed my yew tree story, talking about the significance of the tree. We processed over the stream into the sessile oak forest, where had a moving rendition of the Passenger Pigeon tale from Anthony; Elias’ storytelling debut with a parable about the man who sold his heart to Mammon, relocated to Uist in the Western Isles, (Llyn Padarn serving as a loch); then Ellie shared an amusing tale from Africa about the alligator and the hare (at which point a steam train chuffed by, Ivor the Engine-like – along a narrow gauge track once used for transporting slate to the Menai Straits, now tourists). We wound our way back to the grove of the Summer Branch, via a tree where Gwynn shared a poem in Welsh. We gathered, feeling a little chilly – so I got everyone to raise some chi and blow on their hands before we held them! Then I shared my praise-song to creation, encouraging the circle to give thanks in their own way. I ended with a call-and-response Celtic valediction and three shouts of ‘Hara!’

The final lunch was an incredible curry feast – setting us up for the long journey home, or perhaps preventing our departure! It seemed unlikely we would achieve ‘escape velocity’ from the lovely vortex of the place with such a pay-load! We made our final farewells, swapping emails and gifts. Our group had been small, but that meant we had all mattered in a more obvious way than in a larger group – and we had all connected. Friendships forged, a connection with the land renewed, commitments made to ‘carry the fire’ of the Cangen Haf and our intentions into the wider world, we hit the road.

Rather than go straight back to Bath, which would have felt too abrupt – as though I had been thrown off the end of a conveyor belt, I decided to share the lift back with A&K to Stroud and stay at a friend’s place. It gave us a chance to ‘debrief’ and have a kind of plenary session. There was a lot to process from the weekend and it was nice to chat about what we made of it all. The sun shone and the pleasant scenery of the Welsh Marches eased us back into ‘reality’.

The next day I went to the open day at Hawkwood College, Stroud, where I participated in Jay’s poetry workshop. He read out a poem from Rumi, ee cummings and Mary Oliver, and asked us to think about the effect poetry has on us, which prompted this poem of mine:

Poem Flowers

Poetry is the opening of a flower –

beautiful explosions

of sound and consciousness.

Sonic orchids scattered

in the mind’s stream.

Flimsy petals of luxuriant richness

drawing us in,

intoxicated by exotic scent,

colours of a different palette.

Their pollen sticks to us

and we pass it on.

Its soul-nectar sweetens

our heart’s hive.

During the workshop I could hear the strains of the May-pole dancing music drifting across, inspiring this piece:

The Bright Ribbons of May

The bright ribbons of May

plait the pole of the World-Tree.

The children laugh,

eyes shining with story wonder.

Young men and maidens

dance the ancient dance.

The land smiles again.

The widow of winter

changes into her summer dress.

Hope whispers from the hedgerows.

The seven sisters in their bright dresses

circle in the night,

eyes flashing, spells in their hair,

knowing truths

unspoken on their lips.

And between two fires

the stoic herds are driven

to fairer pastures.

***

After Jay’s workshop, we squeezed into the tipi, to catch some of the excellent storytelling by Kirsty and Fiona. Packed in amongst the little ‘uns, we all became children again, entering the kingdom of the imagination. Unfortunately, I felt myself nodding off after a whirlwind fews days. It was all catching up with me.

Afterwards, we decamped to the Woolpack in Slad, Laurie Lee’s local, where, over a pint of Budding, I read out my new poems, ‘ink still wet’, to my creative friends – Anthony, Jay, Gabriel and Miranda – in our poets’ snug. Jay and Anthony shared theirs, then it was time to go – I had a train to catch – but we walked up to Laurie Lee’s grave to pay our respects to the Bard of the Five Valleys. Then Miranda dropped me off at the station, and I caught the train to Swindon and onto home, wearily lugging my pack up the hill to my hobbit abode, glad to be finally back.

It had been a May Day to remember – I felt I had well and truly celebrated it and been fired up by beauty, friendship and awen.

Eric, whose vision has created Cae Mabon over the last twenty years should be applauded. If you can ever make it up, I highly recommend it. Otherwise, check out his show What the Bees Know, if he’s in your neck of the woods. FFI: http://www.caemabon.co.uk

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Bardic Poetry: The Chair of the Sea

The Chair of the Sea

 

Sitting on the stone chair of Ynys Enlli,

surveying the azure ring of sea

encircling me like a gorsedd robe.

Astride the mountain-hill, 

eyes wide,

westering sun shining a bright road

to the Irish horizon.

Mona to the north –

faint, like the ghost of a grove.

Snowdonia’s fastness to the west

across the boar’s ear of the Llyn –

Eyri rising, a dream in the distance.

Gwyddno’s Bay sweeping south

to the blue stones of Preselli.

 

Nonchalant sheep and feathered skies

my only witness

as I sing my praises.

Finally awoken by awen,

alive in this sacred moment.

 

Counting cetaceans like saints –

twenty thousand, it’s told,

sanctify its weathered folds.

Four hundred and forty four acres

between man and his maker.

 

Here, where Merlin flies in his sleep,

the veil as thin as vellum,

the Divine glows

through the illuminated runes of ruins,

the vivid hues of the red and white lighthouse,

yellow dory, mustard lichen, seal-pup’s belly,

brown rams, black-backed cattle, wayward birds.

 

The book of my dream brought to life.

A road of many words to this point.

The sea’s ink waiting for its pen,

the parchment of sky to quench its thirst.

 

Kevan Manwaring

Bardsey Island, 18th -26th September 2005

(Ynys Enlli, the Island of Currents, is the Welsh name for Bardsey;

Môna, the druid’s name for Anglesey; Eyri, the old name for Snowdon)

 

From Thirteen Treasures, Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2008