Tag Archives: Somerset

Pilgrimage to Sovereignty

Real World Adventure Hooks for D&D — Kingly Presence – Nerdarchy
Gallos, Rubin Eynon, Tintagel

It is a dream I have… (Merlin, Excalibur, Boorman, 1981)

I have been obsessed with all things Arthurian since a young age  – and that compelled me to go on pilgrimage to Glastonbury and other sites associated with his legend as I reached an age when I could hit the road. Coming from a run-down Midlands town it was thrilling to walk in a landscape soaked with myths and legends – but back then I did not realise such things are under your feet, wherever you live. What we consider to be sacred is as an act of perception – but sometimes we have to go on a journey to realise the wonders of the everyday. 

Having walked many of the national trails in 2017 I decided to create a more meaningful route – one with a narrative, a significance, I could relate to. One that might even be transformative. And thus I researched the modern pilgrimage route I called the ‘King Arthur Way’ – a 153 mile long-distance trail from Tintagel (the place of Arthur’s conception, according to legend) to Glastonbury (site of his ‘grave’, or passing).

I loved working out the route on the series of OS maps I purchased – one that takes the pilgrim from the rugged north Cornish coast, across the wild fastness of Dartmoor and the Blackdown Hills, and over the Somerset Levels towards the iconic terminus of Glastonbury Tor.  Along the way one passes castles and mysterious stones, winding rivers, woods and heathland, charming villages and tempting pubs. There were, as on any long-distance walks, days of real challenge and days of reward. Some of the highlights include:

  • Waking up on the coast overlooking Tintagel.
  • Stumbling upon the ancient rock-cut mazes in Rocky Valley.
  • St Nectan’s Glen.
  • Brent Tor.
  • Wild-swimming in the Tamar, Dart, and Shilley Pool.
  • Castle Drogo.
  • South Cadbury.
  • Burrow Mump.
  • Walking to Glastonbury across the Somerset Levels.

Most of all there was this sense of ‘walking the legend’, which made it real in a very embodied way.  If a 6th Century battle-chief existed called ‘Arthur’ (Arturo, Artus …) then he would have been a very different leader than the one rendered in the courtly romances, as would have been his ‘knights’. The Arthur of the early Celtic tales gives us a glimmer, perhaps – he’s far less sympathetic (Trystan and Isseult), more pro-active (The Spoils of Annwn), and often deep in gore (The Celtic Triads).  Yet whether he existed or not, there is an Arthur for all of us – he is a malleable construct that changes through the decades. He epitomized one thing for the Victorians (the noble cuckold; the tragic martyr torn between lofty ideals and earthly desires, skeletons in the cupboard and Christian imperialism); another for the Post-War generation (a dream of unity, however flawed); another for the Counter-Culture (Merlin as the original Gandalf; Mordred as the rebellious anti-hero); another for the New Age (feminist revisionist treatments reappraising the role of women in the Arthuriad and problematizing the patriarchal hierarchy of it all). Arthur ‘exists’ as a cultural meme, as a literary figure, as an ideal – and it is the latter that most engages me at present.

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

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

My hope in creating a modern pilgrimage route is that it could be used for rites-of-passage (for all  genders and ages), for leadership training, for the continuation of a living oral tradition (storytelling, poetry and singing along the route), the cultivation of art trails, the promoting of local businesses, rural regeneration, and so forth. Such an endeavour will only come about through collaboration, community involvement, fundraising and sponsorship. To accomplish such a dream requires inspired leadership. By setting out to create the King Arthur Way perhaps I had awakened my own ‘king’ – and I hope that all who walk it connect with their own inner sovereignty too. 

Route details etc here:

https://kingarthurway.wordpress.com/

Read a fuller account of the creation of the King Arthur Way in the latest issue of The Pilgrim:

https://www.thepilgrim.org.uk/

For general mapping and other pilgrim trails:

https://britishpilgrimage.org/portfolio/king-arthur-way/

Tales from the Marches, Tunes for the Road

On Friday we had another fine Stroud Story Supper – this time Kirsty Hartsiotis was on hosting duties, and the Newent Club were the guests (Newent meet in each others’ houses – so this was a rare chance to see them all perform in public). Glenn started with his version of ‘Canonbie Dick’, a classic tale about a sleeping King Arthur being disturbed by a greedy fool – this one from the Scottish Borders (I mention it in a recent paper I gave at Falmouth). Next up Val did a spine-tingling rendition of her Beltane Hare story. David shared his tale from the Welsh Marches of the Crusader who has to prove his wife loves him to his captor Sultan. And finally, Austin rounded the first half off with his epic bardic retelling of the arrival of the Milesians. It was great to hear their fine stories, and there were many other good contributions as well: after the break we had the latest instalment from Jim of his Icelandic saga, complete with doll; I did my version of ‘the Ogre of Etin Hall’, also from the Scottish Borders; Chanty kept to the High Road with ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’; Anthony offered his great version of Simonides of Ceos and the Palace of Memory (an apt meta-narrative about the storyteller’s art); and Fiona finished off with an abbreviated version of her Theseus and the Gorgon. A great night!

On Saturday my partner and I wended our way our way down to the Mendips – stopping for a windy walk at Priddy Nine Barrows (and a hearty repaste in the Queen Victoria, a Jamaica Inn of a pub, out in the sticks, with its low beams, inglenooks, cauldrons and cast of local ‘characters’) enroute to the Pedal Folk house concert. Pedal Folk are a trio following in the cycle-tracks of the late great poet Edward Thomas*, who cycled from London to the Quantocks in Spring 1913 – a journey he recorded in exquisite detail in his book, In Pursuit of Spring (a favourite of mine). The dedicated folk-cyclists have been recreating his journey – cycling to each venue with all their kit, averaging 30 odd miles a day, negotiating some serious hills, in all weather. Tonight they were appearing as guests of a pair of most generous hosts who opened up their splendid house to around 30 or 40 people – providing a magnificent spread of food and drink. Pedal Folk (the talented troubadours Tim Graham and Robin Grey alternating on guitar and guitarlele, and the exquisitely skilled Canadian Chance Kellner on violin) performed two sets blending new songs inspired by Thomas’ ride, with songs associated with the places he passed through or stopped, reels and airs, and the odd contemporary song from Robin. It was all very engaging and the trio had a relaxed bonhomie on ‘stage’ – showing the kind of rapport that comes from sharing a journey together (both physical and creative). What was played of the Thomas material sounded fantastic and I can’t wait to hear the full album (a demo was available on the night). The show felt like a work-in-progress that will no doubt be fine-tuned and added to over the coming months. What gave the whole endeavour authenticity was the fact these lovely folk were cycling all the way. Such an environmentally-friendly initiative deserves to be applauded. I wish them well on their journey – and hope they enjoy a well-earned rest afterwards!

* I’ve been a massive Edward Thomas fan for a while now – having co-authored a feature-length screenplay about his friendship with Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken (with Terence James). I was drawn to Gloucestershire partly because of the inspiring tale of the Dymock Poets – a group of writer-friends who gathered in the Glos. village before the First World War – and this year I have co-organised a centenary symposium, The Golden Room (Sat 26 July, Stroud Subscripton Rooms) with my partner-in-rhyme, fellow poet Jay Ramsay. Read my article on Creative Fellowship here.

Brean Down

Brean Down

24th January

Hawthorn on Brean Down

A sunny Sunday is not to be wasted by staying in and working. After weeks of bad weather, I had itchy wheels, and so leapt at the opportunity of going on my first rideout of the year. I packed some lunch, togged up and set off … after a false start. I was hoping to take the Legend out on its first spin of O Ten, but the battery in the Triumph was flat after nearly two months sitting on my drive, and so I fired up the Zuki, fresh from its MOT.

It felt great to finally escape the city, to turn the wheel and blow away those cobwebs! The run to Brean is very picturesque, if windy, along the A368 via Chew Valley. Parts of it, with chocolate box villages nestled amidst steep wooded hills remind me of ‘little Switzerland’. With all the hairy bends its slow riding so you are forced to enjoy the view.

Leaving the Mendip range, you then have to negotiate the big sheds of Weston Super Mare – dreary, but you soon pass these, heading south. The turn to Brean is easy to miss – and the ride is frankly, bizarre, zigzagging back and forth without any clear reason – and disconcertingly heading away from Brean towards Brent Knoll. Finally, it hits the coast road that takes you past caravan parks and crazy golf type places. But it’s all worth while in the end – the headland of Brean Down looms into sight, looking stunning on a sunny winter’s day. I park up and grab a much needed cuppa, as my head had gone numb!

The sunlight on the sea was dazzling – it was so good to see the coast. Brean is the nearest decent stretch for me in Bath. I climbed the steep steps, sweating in my leathers, but the view was worth it. Spectacular panorama over the Severn Estuary, looking glorious today in the sun. I sat and ate a sandwich – just as well, as my rumbling stomach must have been audible from Wales – 2.30pm being a bit late for lunch for me. A ‘boost’ on the way stopped my blood sugar levels from completely crashing.

I walked along the south side, topping up on Vitamin D in the sunlight. A notice in the cafe mentioned someone had lost an engagement ring on the Down, and so I couldn’t help but scan the grass. It would’ve been nice to have found it for them. Imagine!

It gave the place a certain numinosity to know I was walking where Violet Firth, aka Glastonbury mystic author Dion Fortune, had walked. And also where they shot scenes for the Shekhar Kapur movie ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’, Brean Down providing an unlikely stand-in for the White Cliffs of Dover. To think of the delectable Cate Blanchett riding here, in full armour with a false leg (so she could appear to be riding side-saddle), surrounded by hundreds of extras, cap-a-pie, also gave the place a certain layering of weird glamour.

Brean Down – a long finger of carboniferous limestone pointing out into the Severn – is a like a 3-D history lesson. From the 300 million rock (cousin of Gower Peninsular, on the Welsh side), forced up into its present ridge 230 million years ago; to the remains of animals from the end of the last Ice Age (auroch, giant deer, reindeer, Arctic Fox, bison, mammoth, wolves and lemmings), 14 to 10 thousand years back – and the first signs of human habitation; a worked giant deer antler from 10,000 BC; to Iron Age settlement – a hill fort from 300BC; to a Roman temple 370AD (which must have inspired occult writer Dion Fortune, who based the temple in her 1930s novel The Sea Priestess there); to the Napoleonic fort, Victorian follies and WW2 gun battery and secret weapons testing; right up to the National Trust primping of the present day. An amazing place.

Yet despite millennia of human activity on the headland, it still feels like nature’s own, a wild place, if not true wilderness, with an impressive array of plants (include the lovely named White Rock Rose, growing in its most northerly location); butterflies; birds and animals. A sign on the way up said ‘Beware Steep Cliffs and Goats’. I didn’t see any today, but their were plenty of walkers out enjoying the sun, and I did meet a couple of young ‘rock monkeys’, who started chatting to me as I stood on the site of the Roman temple, having a moment’s connection with my personal spirituality.

I felt an edifying sense of peace and space. We get so hemmed in by life, and forget to look outside of our respective boxes. Visiting a place like Brean Down gives you a perspective on things. The stoic longevity of such a place helps one to endure, to keep going, to weather all that life throws at you. You leave feeling ‘lighter’.

I descended for a final coffee before I hit the road. I sat on the sea wall and watched a man trying to get his dog, a young Alsatian, to come back. The dog clearly wanted to keep on playing, gamely leaping back, head down to front paws, dropping a ball in front as if to say ‘come play, the sun is out, it is a good day to be alive – work can wait.’ This dog wanted to have its day. Alas, the chain awaits and we all get called back, eventually – but it was worth bearing the cold to blast away the winter blues.

Such an excursion – a walk somewhere beautiful – makes one feel like the end of the week has been ‘marked’ in some way, providing a break from the routine of the week. Stepping off the wheel briefly, creating a sense of hiatus. Sacred time, before the mundanity of Monday kicks in again.

I enjoyed the fast ride home – taking the A38 and A4 – through the lengthening shadows and low golden light. Hitting the traffic lights of Bristol, the night swiftly fell and the temperature dropped. I was glad to get back. It is one of the pleasures of such an experience to return home to a long soak, warm fire, a big mug of Earl Grey, hot buttered crumpets with cinnamon, and a peaceful mind as one slides into Sunday night, with a good book or good film to ease the brain into blissful oblivion.

Wassail!

Here We Come a-Wassailing

17th January

midwinter wassail

Anything that helps us connect with the Earth, its seasons and cycles, and show appreciation for the bounty it generously give us every year has got to be a good thing, in my book.

This weekend all over Somerset, a county renowned for its cider, it is traditional for the wassailing of orchards to take place – this particular manifestation of the custom (a cousin of the door-to-door and hearthside wassailing that occurs across Yuletide) involves the honouring of a chosen apple tree, the ‘apple tree man’, who receives a libation of cider, poured onto its roots; followed by offerings of bread usually soaked in the wassail bowl, impaled on the bare branches of its pollarded crown – literally ‘toasting the tree’, activities both intended to welcome in the good spirits, and the making of a din (indeed, in Carhampton, the firing of shotguns). Wassail carols are sung and much mulled cider and apple juice is drunk. As a custom that takes place in the dead of winter, it often takes place in the darkest nights of the year – and so there’s often a bonfire and lanterns – which light up the gloom and connects it symbolically with many of the ‘bringing back the light’ customs of winter, such as the Up Helly Aa festival in Shetland, which takes place on 26th January and involves hordes of vikings wielding torches, with which they burn a long ship every year. Wassails are smaller, fluffier affairs – a charming custom that takes place quietly and without much fanfare in pockets of ‘orchard affection’ across the West Country. It’s easy to blink and miss, and indeed the two wassails I intended to go to this weekend I managed to miss – Chepstow’s Mari Lwyd, which has a wassail element, took place on Saturday 16 January this year, but the forecast for heavy showers – and because of the recent ice and snow – most of the events had been forced indoors or cancelled altogether. The second is happening right now, in deepest Somerset – the wassail at Carhampton. This isn’t the time of year to be travelling far, especially at night in bad weather, and so most of these events are attended by locals and die-hards like Doc Rowe, a legendary, almost folkloric figure in his own right (by dint of sheer tenacity and track record) whose been recording such customs for over nigh-on half a of century, from his first inspiring visit to Padstow’s May Day celebration in 1963 onwards.

Last night’s experience proved that. I went to the Weston Mummers wassail with my friends Marko and Miranda. After waiting for a bus that failed to materialise (I suspect M had read the timetable wrong) we got a taxi from Bath Abbey – it whisked us along to the far end of Weston, a darkened lane on a drizzly night. After a week of snow it had finally cleared up this afternoon – but had decided to rain in time for the wassail. The place had hardly any street lighting – we could see no signs of life at first, until we spotted a poster on a railing. We followed a track along and came to a park where a small gazebo was set up – chiefly to protect the musicians and the refreshments stall – but by now it had started raining hard, as forecast in Chepstow – and so we took cover underneath. Marko knew the main musician – a fiddle player – and chatted amicably. A crowd of about fifty gathered – headtorches beaming like daleks – mostly families with young kids. We were handed song sheets and the fiddler explained what was to happen. We’d sing the songs and then do the wassail. This was only the second year it had taken place, as it turned out, and to be honest it showed. The weather didn’t help – holding a flimsy photocopy in the rain, trying to read the lyrics in the dark, wasn’t easy. The three different wassail songs (Belly; Stocklinch; and Gloucestershire – the most complex and the one with the best tune) started to sound pretty familiar after the umpteenth chorus of ‘and it’s your wassail…’ Next the fiddler-player/caller explained we had to process in a clockwise direction around the tree while chanting the first part of the Somerset Wassail Carol, ‘Old apple tree, we wassail thee…’ Then back the other way, before repeating the chorus – asking for abundance (‘hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls, and a litte heap under the stairs’), before ending with three traditional ‘hip hip hoorays’. All well and good, except it was pitch black down by the apple tree, the rain had made a soggy mess of my songsheet by then, and many of the kids decided to join along with pots and pans, making hearing the melody pretty impossible. It was a debacle, but good natured, and mad when you think about it – what people do in the rain in the middle of winter! A solitary slice of toast was placed on a branch (this seemed to have been forgotten in the briefing). A queue quickly formed for the steaming ‘cauldrons’ of apple-juice, fermented and non-fermented. The first thing I did was pour some cider on the roots. The mulled cider was so sweet it stuck to my mouth, but it helped stave off the encroaching damp, or made you oblivious to it, at least. Suitably galvanised, we set off in search of the nearest pub – we were given directions through the park, over a small footbridge and along a darkened lane. I didn’t have the foggiest where we were, but we were in good spirits. Marko was taking his time – he has a difficulty walking far or fast – but steeped in about four cups of cider, he said he was ‘having a grand time’. The carrot of another pint helped to keep him moving and eventually we saw street lights ahead and … civilisation … well, Weston. Still, it was a relief to see the shops. The first pub we came to was shut – not a good sign – but fortunately the King’s Head was open, and, as it turned out, in full swing. A bluegrass band was playing, Swamp Donkey, and the atmosphere was wonderfully hic. Talk about the Wild West. Marko and I, in our black hats, might have just swaggered in from a dusty high street, saloon doors swinging. A fiftieth birthday party in the backroom – packed with merry Beryl Cook types – might have been served for a brothel for lonesome cowboys! It was great fun, but it was also a relief to leave – I was keen not to miss the bus – and escape Weston, a ‘frontier town’ of the one-horse variety!

The next day I held my annual wassail – postponed from Twelfth Night (5th January) until Old Twelfth Night (17th January). The fortnight wait made all the difference – the snows had melted and it felt like Spring today. I spotted new shoots in my garden – the first glimmers of the snowdrops soon to bring their light into the world. I prepared a cauldron of mulled cider and baked pomme de terre – apples of the earth, potatoes – plus various fillings. Folk slowly arrived – Sunday slothfulness – and around two we did the wassail in the garden. I rapped on the trunk of my apple tree with a knobbly stick made ‘from a Gloucestershire wodwose’, a gift from Geoffrey Breeze, dealer in antique canes. Then I poured cider on the roots and got the company to placed bread on the branches, soaked in the wassail bowl. Then we chanted the old wassail carol – ending with personal toasts. Then Richard led us in some wassail songs. Sheila song her own beautiful version. We ended by firing party poppers into the trees – and our neighbours were probably glad when we went back inside! Then it was time for the first reading of my new play set in a cider orchard on Old Twelfth Night, ‘Wassailing Avalon’. Roles were alocatted – there was only eight of us, and twelve roles, so some had to double up. But most of the casting seemed spot on. We ran through it – it was great to hear the laughter! Afterwards, we shared more poems and discussed related issues – community and environmental initiatives. There was plenty of grub and grog – and it was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. This was about the tenth time I had done this, and it is always an agreeable gathering – small and beautiful. Unable to make it to Carhampton or Chepstow, I had brought the wassailing tradition to my own home and garden. It feels like a blessing on the place – and on each of the participants. May we all have a fruitful year. Wassail!

Winter walking

The first day of the New Year. The land white like a clean sheet of paper. A heavy overnight frost had transformed my corner of England into Narnia. My friend, fellow writer and all round good egg, Anthony Nanson, was staying over – we went to a New Year’s Eve party together at Mairead’s the night before, watched fireworks exploded over the city while toasting in the new year with champagne (later we had both shared bardic efforts, along with Marko Gallaidhe). After a hearty hobbity breakfast we headed for the hills – ‘into the wild’ as Strider would say, or into the Mendips at least, which usually seem tame, but today felt like more like Dartmoor: slightly edgy. A wildernessed zone of white death.

We put on our boots, drank some edifying coffee from our flasks and set off – following a bridleway up to our first destination, the 375, of Beacon Hill. The hawfrost was half an inch thick on the branches and evergreen foliage. Nature’s attention to detail was, once again, astonishing. No film set could mimic this so completely. Coleridge called it ‘the secret ministry of frost’, and I mentioned the pleasing notion that we may be walking in the Romantic poet’s footsteps – as he and Southey (who became Poet Laureate) used to walk across the Mendips. Here they hatched their plans for a pantisocracy – a utopian society based upon the idea that two hours work a day is all man needs to survive, the rest of his day spent in creative or leisure pursuts, the ultimate idler’s paradise. Anthony and I are no slackers – indeed we are both close to certified workaholics (when it comes to our writing), but the idea of a lifestyle where our own creative endeavours took precedence over the treadmill of existence sounds tantalising. We both endure the grind of marking – it’s somewhat heartening to discover that Tolkien did to. My mind was saturated with Tolkienian arcana, having just finished my radio drama, The Rabbit Room. To anyone else, my harping on would have been a bore, but Anthony shares my enthusiasm, and indeed our whole walk had an Inklings-ish feel to it, as we discussed matters literary, philosophical and spiritual as we traversed the bewintered landscape.

From the trig point, where we were surprised to discover a cluster of other hard-core walkers, who’d had similar notions of New Years Day walks – we made our way down into the forest of Rowberrow – which had its own micro-climate, lacking the frost and being noticeably milder. We then ascended to Dolebury Warren – using a convenient break in the stone wall, like the gap in the border between this world and Faerie in Stardust. No threshold guardian appeared, although barbed wire halted our progress when, breathless, we got to the brow. Instead, we followed the ridge along to a proper gate and stopped for a chilly lunch on the lee of the hillfort; some honeydew mushrooms our ‘hearth’, cheering us with their bright orange colour in the bleak landscape. I found the wintry vista sublimely beautiful and for a while we just stood and stared at the muted tones, fading into visual oblivion. I observed how ‘grey’ can have so many nuances. All the vibrant shades of the natural world were softened by the pervading whiteness. Soothingly gentle after the often garish nonsense of Christmas and New Year – a true stillpoint. Blissful stasis. The wheel, it seemed, had mercifully stopped. Fellow Firesprings David Metcalfe described it as ‘a day outside time’ – having driven over the Mendips to Wells that day. It did us both good, Anthony and I, to have a day off – having both worked over Yuletide, either on teaching obligations or our own projects. It was salubrious to be forced to focus on the physical, on simple needs – food, warmth, shelter. This was hardly a survival situation, although it easily could have become so – if one of us had slipped and broken something. But we were both suitably equipped for such predicaments, although it fortunately didn’t come to that. It was only a hike in the hills – and plenty of other people were around: mountain-bikers, motor-trikers, families… It was hardly Antarctica! What I loved was the way the frozen landscape had its own acoustic: the brittle crunch of ice beneath one’s boot, the satisfying crack of an ice-pane in a puddle, the scittering of ice-shards, the dull thud of our progress on the iron hard ground. Our words were distinct as cold pebbles, forced from blood-sluggish mouths. The frost-world muted sound as well as colour, but at the same time made them stand out even more. At one point we followed a path of ruddy soil, strangely exposed and unfrozen, flanked by endless white heathland – like a trail of blood in the snow. It could have been a scene from Fargo. Yet this was a Mendips Nifleheim and our conversation was ‘the director’s commentary’ of a different DVD. Two writers in search of a pen in a world of endless paper – the land a tabula rasa of our imaginations and ambitions.  Swinging back east towards our starting point as the brief hours of daylight began to wane, we passed the magical dell of Rod’s Pot – where Old Man Willow himself seemed to guard a stream-crossing, his mighty limbs covered in moss – and further on, Goat-church Cavern, hidden amongst the downy folds of the hills. We arrived back at the car after a good three and a half hour yomp. Gratefully back inside its artificial warm cocoon we drove through Burrington Combe, passed Aveline’s Hole and the Rock of Ages, which inspired the famous hymn after a passing Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady took shelter there in 1763. Nature had similarly provided our sanctuary that day.

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.