Tag Archives: Taliesin

The Taliesin Soliloquies: Greyhound


I’ll teach that young upstart,

this new dog’s got old tricks –

the fith-fath he fled with.

Long dog now am I,

deadly Sirius,

death at his heels,

snapping, slavering –

a knife thrust, forever forward,

fangs bared in tight death grin,

eyes on fire,

I shall never blink,

never lose sight of my prey.

As swift as a wisht-hound

running through the sky,

the night, my road,

harrowing souls who stray

into the wild-wood.

There is nowhere you can hide,

little hare,

no hollow or shadow.

No leverage, leveret.

Your scent leaves a ribbon of bright noise

my nose follows with ease.

I am drawing near,

I taste your fur

on my long tongue.

Little Gwion, you’ll make a toothsome morsel,

replace the potion you have stolen,

the awen usurped

from my son.


Hare-thief, there’s no taboo

that will stop me eating you,

the darkness to devour you

in one gigantic




Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017

way of awen by me

From ‘The Taliesin Soliloquies’, originally published in The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, O Books 2010; to be included in the forthcoming Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring, Awen, 2017 https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/


The Taliesin Soliloquies: Hare



I high-tail it

away from Ceridwen’s lair,

jink-jinking to

avoid my pursuer

snapping at my heels –

relentless as death,

inescapable as my shadow.

Heart beating its tattoo of flight,

legs thrum, a drummer boy’s sticks.

Through cwm, over bryn, cefn, coed,

the gaps between the awkward spaces,

through a hedge backwards, this-way-that –

a mad man’s mind.

Method to my erratic path,

yet always, her hot breath at my back.

Driven by the fire in my

stream-lined head, an arrow of fur,

Long ears swept back,

best paws forward. Rabbit foot, bring me luck.

Ablaze with awen,

The world transformed

into a landscape of scent and sound,

predator and prey. Forage, territory and fate.


I must turn and face my foe –

run through the fire and be transformed.

Let the fith-fath change me.


Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017

way of awen by me

From ‘The Taliesin Soliloquies’, originally published in The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, O Books 2010; to be included in the forthcoming Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring, Awen, 2017 https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Summoning the Hero

The Writer’s Quest, part 2

Enter the Hero - Beowulf steps up to the role

Enter the Hero – Beowulf steps up to the role

At this time, Beowulf, nephew of the Geatish king Hygelac, is the greatest hero in the world. He lives in Geatland, a realm not far from Denmark, in what is now southern Sweden. When Beowulf hears tales of the destruction wrought by Grendel, he decides to travel to the land of the Danes and help Hrothgar defeat the demon. He voyages across the sea with fourteen of his bravest warriors until he reaches Hrothgar’s kingdom.

Every creative act is an act of courage – it is ‘yah-boo-sucks!’ to death, to oblivion, to mediocrity, to being a passive consumer of life. We have everything against us – common sense; the pressure of earning a living; unhelpful peers; inner critics; crazymakers; noisy neighbours; that household chore that really needs your attention; that cold call; Climate Chaos; global financial meltdown; random asteroids and super volcanoes threatening to Destroy The World in an instant! See these as threshold guardians – they are the equivalent of the three-headed dog Cerberus that guarded the entrance to the realm of Hades. They are there to test your mettle, your tenacity. How much do you want to follow your dreams? Is your Push bigger than your Pull? Hollywood screenwriters use the useful idea of the ‘Fear/Desire Axis’ – which, despite its name is not some terrorist cell, or Bond-like super-baddy organisation. Basically, the actions of every character (and, possibly, every human being) is governed by the principle. Imagine it like a see-saw, with Fear at one end, Desire at the other. When a character’s desire outweighs their fear, they move forward. When that mean old bully fear tips the balance, they freeze or retreat. The locus of optimum dramatic tension is the tipping point between the two – the trick is to sustain this as long as possible. Shakespeare kept Hamlet stewing in his own juices for five acts, prevaricating, unable to act. This was the Prince of Denmark’s fatal flaw – he oscillated between ‘to be or not to be’, like some dodgy alternator. If he had killed Claudius in Act One, Scene One – end of story. Instead, Shakespeare wisely spun it out and elicited powerful drama from the psychological anguish experienced by the Dane at his tipping point, creating early Nordic noir.

`Yet, finally, the Hero must act – whatever the consequences. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam reach the uninviting entrance to Shelob’s Lair, reeking of carrion, plot snags and foul things. Neither of them are keen to enter – but they have a mission, to take the One Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it. This ‘desire’ outweighs their ‘fear’ and, steeling themselves (Frodo, with Sting) they step into the dark. This makes them heroes. Of course, if they had thought – ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’, and gone back to the Shire, they wouldn’t have been (and they wouldn’t have found much of a Shire to go back to). Novelist John Cowper Powys talked about how a character’s behaviour is governed by a ‘concatenation of imperatives’161 – incrementally, things build up (like ounce weights on the scales) until the protagonists simply have no choice (or so it would seem to them), or if they do, it’s a Hobson’s Choice – a choice which is really no choice at all.

And so into the darkness the plucky hobbits step – with their magic sword in one hand, and the Light of Elendil in the other. And so must we, as writers – armed with only a pen (or keyboard) and the frail light of our inspiration. In the Welsh legend of the bard Taliesin, Gwion Bach is reborn shining with awen (inspiration), stolen from Ceridwen’s cauldron – ‘Behold the radiant brow!’ cries the weir-ward when he is rediscovered, a helpless babe in a coracle. Consumed by our ‘illumination’ we venture into the Perilous Realm, like Wandering Aengus in WB Yeats’ classic poem: ‘I went for a walk in a hazel wood because a fire was in my head…’

Setting off on the Writer’s Quest of the creative process is perhaps akin to being a knight in a medieval romance, venturing into the forest (although we are probably more like Parsifal at this stage – the Holy Fool – more than the accomplished Paladin). Be prepared to make a fool of yourself, turning up at Court on a donkey in a patchwork costume. Let yourself make mistakes – give yourself permission – because so much success comes from creative ‘failure’, from trial and error and happy accidents. Embark in the spirit of creative play – and you will be more likely to create something original. Start thinking that you ‘know it all’, that you have the answers, and you will have nothing to learn (and readers will probably be less inclined to listen). Start your quest with questions – and your journey will be a journey of discovery, fuelled by curiosity and delight, some of the essentials for a writer.

10 Essentials for a Writer

  • Pen. Paper. A lack of excuses.
  • Curiosity & Delight.
  • A willingness to say ‘yes’ to life/a rebuttal of the ‘no’s’.
  • Ability to rewrite and listen to feedback.
  • Staying power (an internal composition engine).
  • An appetite for adventure.
  • Risk-taking.
  • Boldness.
  • Humour.
  • A healthy book habit.

Gawain had a pentagram on his shield to remind him of the ‘five Christian virtues’. In Scotland, at the Castle of the Muses, I met a South-African ‘knight’ called David told me of the essential chivalrous qualities as he sees them. A knight has:

  • the wisdom to do what is right
  • the will to make it happen
  • and the strength to make it endure.

And he suggested the three traits of a warrior are: impeccability, unpredictability, and responsibility. These latter qualities could certainly apply to a writer: impeccability in terms of being conscientious of one’s craft, attending to the details, keeping one’s house in order; unpredictability, in terms of originality of thought, ideas and execution; and responsibility, in terms of what you write, what you choose to bring into the world. These are the qualities we need to summon in ourself as we heed the call to adventure and set off to face our foe. In essence, the Hero is our Higher Self – and writing can help us connect to it (as well as to our Lower Self, our Shadow).

I call these the Avatarian and Atavistic Impulses.

Basically, writing can bring out the best and the worst in us – both in its execution and on the page. Writers can be beasts and saints, charismatic or tedious bores. Good to be around, or the partner/friend from Hell. Selfless, or selfish. Certainly there is an element of selfishness in writing – in indulging in one’s fantasies, as well as in the single-mindedness needed to see a project through to completion; and yet one could argue that in spending precious years slaving away at a manuscript that might have an altruistic element (the edification of humanity!) we are being selfless to a certain extent (although in reality the act of writing is probably a blending of the -less and the -ish!). On the page, the Avatarian and Atavistic Impulses can manifest in the form of characters – we can personify them.

It could be argued that all characters are aspects of the author’s personality (for where else do they come from? who else is writing it?). The Hero and Villain of a tale could be seen as the Higher and Lower Self of the author, although this is perhaps a crude analysis and things are often more nuanced than that. Villains often ‘act out’ our Super-Egos (over-confident, slick, successful, sexually magnetic, etc); and Heroes can often be dysfunctional and even amoral. Martin Amis said that ‘novels come from the base of the spine’ – echoing Nabokov’s ‘tell-tale tingle down the spine’162 – in the way that they explore powerful primal issues around security and identity. They can be an instinctual response to the world, almost beyond cognition – hence the mystery around the creative process, and where authors get their ideas from. Often, we can’t say for certain – until afterwards. The first draft is often written ‘in the dark’ – in the process of unknowing, of seeking, or being ‘driven’ – and the second with the ‘lights on’. The ‘scary thing in the shadows’ disturbs our status quo and forces us to give it voice, and then we ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ (or the stench of blood) and go in all guns blazing. First, Grendel; then Beowulf.

Of Beowulf, the bards sang:

And many men stated that south or north,

Over all the world, or between the seas,

Or under the heaven, no hero was greater.’163

When we summon the Hero we are, in a way, evoking our better qualities – our unrealised potential – and giving them a form. There is often an element of wish-fulfilment, of power-fantasy (think of James Bond; Sherlock Holmes; Jason Bourne, etc). The Hero can carry for us all the things we wish we could do or be if only… By writing, we literally tap into these and give them dramatic form; and in the process, we inhabit these qualities. By channelling the archetype, for a while we become it. And this is part of the visceral (as well as intellectual) thrill of writing which is rarely discussed. The adrenalin rush of writing can be intoxicating and … addictive. ‘I feel gripped by something stronger than my will,’ is how Alice W. Flaherty describes it.164

That is why, I believe, writing is the ‘best of me’ (as I tap into my Higher Self) and also when I often feel most fully alive (it can be exhilarating). When I am firing on all cylinders, the writer is a turbo-charged version of myself – I feel like I am stepping into my power and being most fully myself. I am living up to my own potential.

And so by becoming writers, we become in effect, the Hero of our own story. We are no longer the passive recipient of another’s narrative. We have seized control of our own and writing our destiny into being.

Whether we accomplish it is another matter.

The way is littered with perils and pitfalls – not least that of Ego the Giant, who lumbers onto our path and threatens to overshadow the whole proceedings unless he is handled with care.

Next we will look at the Art of Bragging and how that feckless lunk, Ego, can be put to good use.


Extract from ‘The Writer’s Quest’ Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest, Compass Books, 2014


Isles of the Ever-Living


Islands of the Ever-Living

Kevan Manwaring

(the second part of a two-part article. Last time we looked at Isle of the Dead)

No Country for Old Men

Isles of the Dead often blur into Islands of the Ever-Living – in the mythic imagination it is hard to see the join – but the latter are completely in the Otherworld (despite claims that Avalon can be found in Somerset). Ever culture has them – consoling fictions to the reality of death perhaps. Ireland has one of the most famous, Tir nan Og, the Land of the Ever-young. WB Yeats visited it many times in his immortal poetry, as in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born and dies.

The American novelist Cormac Mccarthy probably had that last line more in his head when he wrote the novel that was turned into the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men (USA, 2007) – a paradigm away from the fey afterlife depicted in Irish myth, although the state of California seems to do its best at being a modern analogue for Tir nan Og, with its Tinsel-town fairy glamour and cult of the young and beautiful, in reality ‘youth without youth’ – perpetuated by plastic surgery ad nauseam. In science fiction, the tropes of myth, legend and fantasy have been transplanted into future utopias. In the Seventies’ Sci-Fi film Logan’s Run there is no old age – because everyone is culled when they turn thirty. This is akin to the cult of dead celebrities – of film stars (James Dean and Marilyn Monroe) and pop stars (Buddy Holly; Richie Valance; the ’27 Club’ of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain, Curtis, Hutchence, etc) forever young, forever beautiful.

In the ‘grey havens’ of the ageing West, where people are living longer, it seems few allow themselves to grow old gracefully – no one is willing to open the ‘strong door’ to let in reality, as in the tale from The Mabinogion. Bran’s company – the classic seven survivors – spend eighty years on a timeless island called Gwales, off the coast of south Wales (possibly Grassholm) in the enchanting presence of their decapitated leader, whose severed head – like Orpheus’s – began to sing. His potent presence dilated time – a cryogenic Face of Bo with the charisma of Captain Jack Harkness and John Barrowman’s vocal talents!

In the Celtic Tradition the Otherworld overlaps with our own and can be accessed via a spring, a grove, a cave, at dawn, twilight, at the cross-quarters (‘The Immortal Hour is always now’ Kathleen Raine). Tir nan Og can be visited through certain lakes, e.g. Lough Corrib, Lough Gur and Lough Neagh. Both Oisín and the warrior O’Donoghue entered Tir nan Og, according to some traditions, through the waters of Lake Killarney…Indeed, almost any body of water could serve this purpose, as it acts as a mirror for the subconscious and soporific effects extends brainwaves from Alpha to Theta, allowing greater synaptic leaps and more lateral connections.

Music and song can create this effect too – in another Irish legend, ‘Midhir’s Invitation to the Earthly Paradise’ is not only a classic description of the Ever-living Lands (‘‘the young do not die there before the old.’) it provides a sonic portal, altering the consciousness of the listener.

Timelessness and its unfortunate consequence, time displacement, are common traits of the Ever-living Lands – a day in Otherworld becomes a year here, or vice versa. The most haunting example of this Oisín’s three hundred year ‘honeymoon’ on Tir nan Og with Niamh of the Golden Hair.

Other Celtic heroes spend time enchanted in the form of animals – hawks, boars, stags, wolves, birds, even insects – their human selves in a kind of chronological stasis, surviving for sometimes millennia until finally released, fully cognisant of their time in animal form but physically unaged. The anamorphic poetry of Amergin and Taliesin (‘I am stag of the seven tines…’ etc) is possibly an example of druidic metempsychosis – the transmigration of the soul into different life-forms: reincarnational evolution and past life memory. The dream of other lives the awakened human soul remembers.

Sleeping by a fairy mound or tree is always a risky gambit – as Rip Van Winkle discovered. And stepping into a fairy ring can be even deadlier – seventeenth century Scottish minister, Robert Kirk, did just that and reputedly vanished from God’s Earth – leaving behind his ‘rough guide’ to Faerie: The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, a MS of which can still be viewed in the National Library of Scotland.

Bardsey Island boasts ‘the time-eating goblins of Ynys Enlli’, at least the ferry over does on its behalf. The medieval monks spin-doctors claimed there is no death there, and ‘no one dies except of extreme old age’ – the rhetoric of a medieval version of a holiday brochure, a health farm for the soul?

Yet the monks of Mount Athos, belonging to a community of Greek Orthodox monks, are said to be the world’s healthiest people. The great and the good have gone there to be purged of the ills of Western civilisation.

Giraldus Cambrensis talks of Insula Viventum, an island whose inhabitants knew no death, reputedly ‘Inish na mBeo’, the ‘Isle of the Living’, in Lough Cre, east of Roscrea, County Tipperary.

In his novel Spiritwalk, (1992) Charles de Lint has a Djibwe elder, a First Nations tribe medicine man mention Epangishimuk: ‘the spirit land in the west where Nambush ruled and the spirits travelled after death’, (Spiritwalk, p120). The Path of Souls that spirits of the dead travel to reach the west is called ‘meekunnaug’. (ibid p144)

In the Finnish epic the Kalevala, the heroes LemminKainen and Ilmarinen makes various sorties into an otherworldly realm called ‘Pohjola’, that is The North Country, defined as ‘A dark and dismal country to the north of Kalevala, sometimes identified with Lapland itself.’ There the inhabitants lived free from care because they posses the Sampo, a magic corn, salt and coin-mill; the Scandinavian equivalent of the ‘land of milk and honey’.

Dunbavin, in his book Atlantis of the West suggests: ‘the Elysian Fields may indeed be held to be the ultimate source of the Atlantis myth’, (p282-3) albeit in a circuitous way, as he tries to prove they are in the Irish Sea.

In The Odyssey, that ultimate quest back home, to Ithaka (which to the hero, becomes a kind of paradise) blind Homer describes the Elysian Fields:

The Deathless Ones will waft you instead to the world’s end, the Elysian Fields, where yellow-haired Rhadamanthus is. There indeed men live unlaborious days. Snow and tempest and thunderstorms never enter there, but for men’s refreshments Ocean sends out continually the high-singing breezes of the west.

The Odyssey, Homer, IV, 549-643

Tied in with these geographical ‘lost’ islands in history, folklore, folk tales, place memory and genius loci – what currently is called psychogeography. These are more than rocks in the sea – they carry ‘freight’, the weight of our expectations, projections and participation with them over the years.

Celtic tradition and beliefs are expressed spiritually through the land: the landscape is filled with places where spirit is present. Every time we experience it, this presence encourages us to make an imaginative act that personifies the place to us. Then we perceive its qualities personally. This is the anima loci, the place-soul. When this is acknowledged and honoured, ensouled sacred places come into being.’ Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscape, p13

It is no coincidence that a plethora of sacred islands can be found like rosary beads around the shores of the British Isles – not only did the Celts migrate West via the water, but the monks and hermits would ‘island hop’ in the hope of more remoteness more solitude, so they could be closer to God (after the Synod of Whitby in 600 AD Celtic monks headed west to slip the yoke of Rome). These are ‘thin places’, as Ynys Enlli, Bardsey Island, is known as:

the membrane between Heaven and Earth seems to be less dense…nothing comes between: there is total transparency’

Quote from Ty Carreg visitors information, Bardsey Island.

One could say the same for any liminal place: spring, pool, cave, hill, mountain, wood, stream, bridge (e.g. Fairy Bridge, Isle of Mann). To the Celtic peoples all of these would have been places where the ‘veil was thin’ – and at certain times of year, even more so, e.g. Beltane, Samhain – the beginning and end of summer, respectively, when the Good Folk, the Sidhe, where abroad. Yet islands are especially sacred:

According to traditional thinking islands are inherently sacred, being places cut off by water from unwanted physical and psychic influences.’ Pennick (ibid, p105)

They offer a refugium – a place cut-off from the world where it is perhaps possible to survive hazardous times. These ‘arks’ are often more vulnerable than they wish – for no man is an island. Every Shangri-La is destined to be discovered, desecrated, lost.

Pennick continues:

Sacred places come into being when humans recognise and acknowledge them. They are ensouled locations where we can experience elevated consciousness, receive religious inspiration and accept healing.’ ibid, p14

Bob Trubshaw echoes this when he says: ‘the significance of a place has less to do with the physical landscape than with the meanings we give to the location.’ (Sacred Places, p3)

When people perform acts at a place that are in harmony with its inner qualities’, Pennick suggests, ‘then these qualities are enhanced and increased.’ This is what he calls Spiritual Gardening, akin to the work of the geomancer, who enhances the feng shui of a place – the flow of the earth dragon – through placing of objects, running water, etc.

In Iceland these ‘dragons’ are called landvaettir – landwights or earth spirits ‘where certain areas and landholdings were kept sacred’.

Mag Mell, ‘plain of joy’ is another Elysium…It is dealt with extensively in Maculloch’s article in The Druid’s Voice. We will instead venture further North.


It is easy to see why a dramatic country on the edge of the Arctic Circle is known as the land of ice and fire: Iceland. There is a strong Icelandic storytelling tradition, no doubt born out of the very long dark nights. Its corpus of legends and folktales – imported mainly from Scandinavia when it was settled a thousand years ago – have been enhanced by the dramatic landscape. Iceland is associated with the legendary island of Thule (pronounced Thoolay) and seems to fit later descriptions of it. Ancient European descriptions and maps located it either in the far north, often northern Great Britain, possibly the Orkneys or Shetland Islands, or Scandinavia, but by the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance Thule had drifted further out, into the west and north, often Iceland or Greenland – perhaps as a result of the pushing back of the boundaries of the known world. Ultima Thule, as it was also known in medieval geographies seems to denote any distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world.” Some people use Ultima Thule as the Latin name for Greenland when Thule is used for Iceland. Iceland certainly is on the borders of known world – of both the American and Eurasian plates. It is one of the two places on Earth where it is possible to see this pulling apart of continent, and its ancient parliament, the Alþingi (All-Thing, as in the Manx Tynwald, Thing-Vollr: field of the parliament, with its own equivalent of Tynwald Hill, Law Rock) was held here, dramatically situated in its cleft like something out of Middle Earth. Here democracy was forged, but the justice it meted out was a keen-edged sword. Nearby is the ‘island of duels’, an island of sand formed in a manmade lake, created by a diverted river. Two men in dispute would go to it, only one could return – and the matter was settled. The trial-by-combat was viewed by judges, and not a few spectators one imagines! Holmganga is the Norse word for formalised single combat, meaning literally ‘going on an island’.

Fortunate Isles 
In the Fortunate Isles, also called the Isles (or Islands) of the Blessed (μακαρων νησοι makarôn nêsoi), heroes and other favored mortals in Greek mythology and Celtic mythology were received by the gods into a blissful paradise. These islands were thought to lie in the Western Ocean near the encircling River Oceanus; the Madeira and the Canary Islands have sometimes been cited as possible matches. Flavius Philostratus, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana (book v.2) discussing these elusive islands, postulates:
the Islands of the Blessed are to be fixed by the limits of Libya where they rise towards the uninhabited promontory.’

The last phrase is a telling one – almost any ‘uninhabited promontory’ becomes susceptible to such speculative geography. Nature is not the only thing that abhors a vacuum. Mankind as populated the edges of the known with his imagination since the dawn of time.


In ancient times Great Britain was famed as the island of the druid colleges, where trainee druids would come for instruction. Blake said:

All things begin and end on Albion’s ancient druid rocky shore.

Hyperborea, the Land Beyond the North Wind, is thought to refer to Britain: this is how it seemed to the Greeks – the back of beyond, dark, damp and primitive, the Antipodes of their zenith civilisation (from their perspective – that’s not to say there wasn’t civilisation below their radar in backwater Britain).

The earliest reference to the British Isles is as the ‘Tin Islands’ (Cassiterides, or Oestrymnides):

But from here it is two days journey by ship to the sacred island, as the ancients called it. This spreads its broad fields amongst the waves and far and wide the race of the Hierni inhabit it. Near it again lies the island of the Albiones

Massilote Periplus, c500 BCE

The ‘Hierni’ could well be the Hibernians, another name for the Irish, and the ‘island of the Albiones’ must surely be mainland Britain: Albion, inhabited by ‘the white ones’ – Caucasians. In my novel Windsmith, (awen 2006). I call these topographical ancestors The Chalk Folk. It is perhaps not surprising that ancient seafarers, presented with the white cliffs of Dover, called Britain the White Isle, however colourful its inhabitants – a home of migrant populations.

The classical myth is that Albion was a land formerly occupied by giants – cousins of the Tuatha de Danaan, the Irish aboriginal aristocracy diminised to ‘Little People’. These had conveniently vanished, justifying colonisation, although they had left their legacy in enigmatic stone temples.

Geoffrey of Monmouth compounded this creation myth in his History of the Kings of Britain, claiming Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, reached Britain, landing at Totnes in Devon, and dividing the land between his sons, Locrine, Camber and Alba (Logres; Cambria and Albion). This is a dindsenchas, a place-story, on a national scale.

It was thought by the Ancient Greeks that the god Apollo visited Hyperborea once in a course of nineteen years, a cycle known as the Great Year (‘in which period the stars complete their revolutions’ Hecateus). The ‘Temple of Apollo’ often alluded to could have been a reference to that great stone calendar Stonehenge. Britain was clearly a place was time itself was trapped in stone – as the myth that Cronus himself was chained beneath Hyperborea’s soil. Plutarch, in ‘The Decline of the Oracles’ recounts ‘the travels of Demetrius of Tarsus, an explorer sent out from Rome to survey the islands to the West of Britain. Demetrius describes a number of islands scattered in the sea. He met a few holy men who told him of a nearby isle where Cronus lay eternally imprisoned, watched over as he slept by the hundred-handed Briareus. Around about him were many daemons who acted as his servants.’

In Pindar’s Odes, we hear of such a place, guarded by fierce elementals:

Go by God’s road to the Tower of Cronus

Where the Airs, daughters of Ocean

Blow round the Island of the Blest

Pythean Odes, X, II

Long have wild seas and high winds kept all but the intrepid away from Britain’s coast, perhaps adding to its mystique. There is a Breton tradition that fishermen would ‘drop off’ the deceased on these haunted shores and it said they hear their names being called out. Author Robert Holdstock’s Merlin Codex depicts Britain as the Ghost Isle:

We were content on our island, the Island at the Edge of Dawn. Good plains for the wild hunt; good forests for the tangled hunt. Good valleys and hills. Good water. Groves where the vision of magic was comforting and sometimes enthralling.

Holdstock, The Broken Kings, p44

Islands in the Time-stream

Forbidden islands are common and the unwary traveller breaks the taboos of an otherworldly island at their peril. The immrama of the Celitc saints describe an archipelago of such Edenic places, each with their forbidden fruits – perhaps fantasized by ascetic monks, deprived of such pleasures. Ile de Sein, in the Atlantic off Cap-Sizun, ‘was once reputed to support a retinue of nine priestesses.’ This seems a common trope: the Cauldron of Plenty, held in Annwn, was ‘warmed by the breath of nine muses. This was held on Caer Wydyr (possibly Ynys Witryn) – the water-girdled fortress of crystal where nine maidens dwelt in an otherworldly place of seer-ship, itself echoing Merlin’s tower of seventy-seven windows, built for him by his sister, Ganeida – said to be located on Bardsey, with its square lighthouse, or more likely to be a kind of TARDIS, tucked into unlikely places, while the Arthurian timelord, ageing in reverse, tinkers with time.

My Mythic Reality novel The Well Under the Sea (RJ Stewart, 2009) is set on an island at the crossroads of time called Ashalantë, an amalgamation of the legends of Atlantis, Ys and Cantre’r Gwaelod. It is governed by The Nine, based upon the nine priestesses of Avalon, and contains all the classic elements of a paradisal island – orchards, fair weather, deathlessness, beautiful women, legendary heroes… At its heart is a well (based upon the mythical Well of Segais in terms of imagery, if not function) where its inhabitants, when bored of their life of Elysium can return to Earth – stripped of their ‘bodies’ and returned to their primal essence, to be reborn again.

The End Of All Our Exploring

As Oisín finds, however pleasant paradise – in his case, Tir nan Og – there’s no place like home. And this becomes literally true for him – he returns to find three hundred years have passed and all those he once loved and knew turned to dust. The centuries catch up with him in a flash when he accidentally touches the ground, and he finds himself an old, old man – a man out of his time, a lost hero from another era, a ghost in his own land. His home is ‘no place’ – utopia – and perhaps that is the nature of all such places, a state of mind, always elsewhere, always unattainable. They slip out of our grasp as we reach them, or, if we hold onto them we pay a price, as one of Maeldun’s men found on their immram – each time they tried to leave the Isle of Women, its queen would cast out a sticky thread to haul them back, until finally the man cut off his hand and they passed on.

Setting out for these places is not as difficult as returning – the perilous Road Home on the Hero’s Journey – to return with something tangible is not easy (as the Babylonian king Gilgamesh found – having quested for the flower of life, he falls asleep on the way back, exhausted by his ordeal, and a snake eats it). Perhaps the best we hope for is to accept their temptation, their transience, learn from them and let them go… Blake said ‘he who kisses a joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise’.

It is part of the pleasure of our immram that we perceive our own lands with a fresh perspective – strangers in an estranged land, the native returning from a long voyage of many years. In Four Quartets, TS Eliot says:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Little Gidding’ (239-242)


Expanded extract from Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden by Kevan Manwaring, published by Heart of Ablion Press, 2008 (www.hoap.co.uk)


Anon, Kalevala, Athlone Press, 1985

Eliot, TS, The Four Quartets, Faber & Faber, 1943

Haeberlin, Herman K., ‘Trails to the Ghost Lands’, Sacred Hoop #57, 2007

Holdstock,Robert, The Broken Kings, Gollancz, 2007

Macculloch, JA, ‘The Celtic Elysium’, The Druid’s Voice, #18, 2008

Pemberton, Cintra, Soulfaring: Celtic Pilgrimage, Then and Now, SPCK 1999

Pennick, Nigel, Celtic Sacred Landscapes, Thames & Hudson, 1996

Trubshaw, Bob, Sacred Places: prehistory and popular imagination, Heart of Albion Press, 2005

Kevan Manwaring is a writer and storyteller who lives in Stroud. He is the author of over a dozen titles including Lost Islands, The Bardic Handbook, The Way of Awen, Turning the Wheel and The Windsmith Elegy.

Author website: http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk

Awen in the Mountains

Way of Awen weekend

Cae Mabon 22-25 April

View from the main hall at Cae Mabon - a place of inspiration and beauty

Way back in 2004 I ran a series of ‘bardic development weekends’ at picturesque settings around the country – these led to The Bardic Handbook. Now, as its follow-up, The Way of Awen, is due to come out (in June from O Books) I decided to run a new event, partly based upon its contents. And so I organised a weekend up in North Wales in an inspiring location, Cae Mabon, an eco-retreat centre, which I first visited last Spring (though I had known about it for a number of years).

I have enjoyed visiting Wales around this time of year for a while – a chance to reconnect with ‘the Source’, which although is I believe ‘all around us’, it seems closer to the surface in the mountains. Blake as ever, put it best: ‘Great things are done when Men & Mountains meet/ This is not Done by Jostling in the Street.’

After 10 days of storytelling workshops in NE Italy I knew my cauldron would need replenishing – but I hadn’t counted on the difficulty of getting back! The volcano in Iceland erupted, closing all UK and many Continental airports – this made getting home a feat of Odyssian proportions (many are still struggling). I did not want to accept the consensus that it might not be feasible getting back until the weekend – for it would have meant my long-planned weekend in the mountains would have been cancelled. I managed, with the priceless help of my native-speaking hostess Silvana, to secure what seemed like the last train ticket out of Italy – all the trains from Milan had been booked until mid-week at least. I had to go via Austria and Switzerland, but would at least make it to Paris by Tuesday teatime, then I reckoned the train to Calais, and crossing over on the ferry as a foot passenger would be my best bet. Finding out anything was impossible – as websites had crashed, phonelines were jammed. Fortunately, I had a friend in Paris who was able to get me the ticket to Calais, so at least I knew I could reach the coast. I had been stuck in Paris he had a friend who could’ve put me up for 10 Euros a night (the cheapest bed in Paris!) which was nice to know. Thank goodness for friends. But I kept going, despite being in sore need of a bed after an 18hr train journey across Europe. I figured it would be better to queue up at Calais, even if it meant a dreary night at the terminal, then get there late the following day and risk not getting home until Wed evening. I was meant to leave for N Wales the next day and desperately needed a day to recover – a day of stillness! The gods of travel were with me and I got on a ferry at 00:25hrs Wed am (GMT+1), back in Blighty 01:00am, losing an hour on the way. Caught a bus to London – arriving, bleary-eyed, at 3.30am. No coaches or trains… shared a taxi to London Paddington and caught the first train out, though it was over-priced. It got me back to Bath by 7am – which was beautiful to behold in the early morning Sunday. Finally I stepped through my front door and collapsed – 33 hrs constant travelling, but it had been worth it. A day to recover – the weekend had been salvaged.

The next morning I prepared my handouts and finished packing, then set off at 1pm – arriving just after 6pm (couple of stops for petrol). It had been a lovely run up in the sun on my Triumph Legend. It felt good to be travelling under my own steam again – master of my destiny once more! Nothing worse than hanging around – feeling trapped. It had been, nevertheless, a powerful lesson – that I am still processing, not having had much chance to ‘catch up with my self’, for now I had a weekend of workshops to run. No rest for the bardic!

As I passed the dramatic threshold of Pen-y-Pass, at the apex of Llanberis Pass – the awesome glacial scar through the flanks of Snowdon – I felt a certain elation. Against all odds I had made it. I snaked carefully down the mountain road into Llanberis, taking care to take the right turning to Fachwen (last time I was here I took the wrong one, and ended up half-way up Snowdon, passing bemused walkers!). Llyn Padarn was on my right and I followed it around, crossing a small stone bridge and then the narrow lane that wound up into the foothills through massive Symplegades of granite. It feels like one long wrong-turning, but eventually the entrance to Cae Mabon is found – down steep hairpin bends, along a pot-holed track. I pulled into the ‘car park’, glad to see the smiling face of Mabon, beaming over the wooden gateway. Made it!

I amused myself with the theory that the place had been given its name, because that’s what you feel like saying when you finally find it: ‘Fachwen!’ It actually means ‘little, white’, after the stream that runs along the side of it – cascading down from a series of waterfalls.

I unloaded the bike and lugged my kit down to the ‘hobbit village’. In the hall four of the participants had arrived – five, with our special guest, baby Lily, who was to charm us all weekend with her cheekiness and amazing ability to pick up new words. Someone made me a mug of tea and I slumped into a chair. That night we took it easy – a couple of women from Glastonbury didn’t make it until late. They had the groceries. Fortunately, there was some stuff left over from the last group, complemented by some of Eric’s veggies, so we got a curry on the go and settled in. It was getting close to 9pm (arrival was 4-6pm) and we were getting worried. I managed to find the mobile number of one of them on an old email and we called them – they were just coming down the track. They were grateful for a plate of hot food when they arrived. By now it was about ten and I was certainly flagging. Eric asked me about the nature of Awen and I explained it as best I could in my semi-comatose state. After clearing up, some of us jumped in the hot tub, which Julia had fired up earlier, with the help of Ken – a Kiwi resident. It was wonderfully soothing – apart from gashing my finger as I leapt into the icy mountain stream, shouting ‘Fachwen!’ Eric joined us, soaking like some Celtic king in a cauldron. The stars glittered and the waxing moon shone through the tangled trees. The heated water and sound of the stream helped smooth away the rigours of the journey. It was time for bed and a good night’s sleep.

My home for the weekend - the lovely cob house.

In the morning, after breakfast, I outlined the day and asked for any suggestions/contributions. I left some space in the programme for either free time or extra workshops offered by members of the group. Ola kicked things off with an African dance workshop. This got us warmed up for my Poetry in Motion workshop – working through the animals of the Taliesin story, which I told – we used movement to inspire poetry. Before each ‘dance’ I got someone to read out one of the animal poems from The Taliesin Soliloquies I wrote as part of The Way of Awen book. This triggered individual responses – as each participant imagined themselves inhabiting respective animal’s consciousness. They moved around the site, between the standing stones and trees, or around the stream – communing with different elements. The exercise seemed to work very well and produced some excellent poetry – fresh and sinuous, visceral and full of vitality.

After lunch I took people on a walk up to the waterfall and viewpoint. It was a lovely sunny afternoon. We napped in site of Snowdon, overlooking Llanberis and Llyn Padarn. Alas, on the way back Wayland felt weak and had to be helped every step of the way. I had to carry Lily for Liz – she fell asleep on my shoulders, her snoring becoming ‘bubbling’, as she dripped snot on me! Together, we eventually got back – Liz coming to pick us up in the car after we had to do a large detour to avoid the stone steps Wayland struggled with. It was a relief to get back and have a cup of tea! I finished off my poetry workshop with a session on remembering and performing poetry, which seemed to go down well. Folk spent some time learning poems while dinner was being prepared. I ran through Dragon Dance – my epic Praise Song to Albion – but I was so tired I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Even though I hadn’t done it for many months – since last summer? – most of the 14 pages came back to me. I was going to have another go after dinner, but decided to do a classic poem closer to where I was ‘at’: CP Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’.

I got the fire going in the roundhouse and we gathered there around nine. I started things with the awen, then my poem Ithaka. We took turns to share a poem, song or story. It went well, but I was very tired – and despite being able to do WB Yeats’ ‘The Celtic Twilight’ off the top of my head, I suffered bardic droop when it came to doing my flower maiden poem, which is linguistically tricky. By then the wine and fatigue had taken its toll and I retired.

Saturday we were blessed with even better weather. Today I ran my ‘Climbing the Beanstalk’ workshop in the morning – it culminated in some excellent performances. My participants managing to learn and perform (well) a Greek Myth in 2 hrs. After lunch there was a faerie card talk/workshop from Amanda; a fascinating talk on Iron Age archaeology from Julia, a phD student; then I led a brief brainstorming discussion on what kind of celebration/ceremony we wanted to end the weekend with. After dinner, we had another session in the roundhouse, ending early so we could enjoy the hot-tub again.

Way of Awen weekend participants in front of round-house - with face paint!

Sunday we prepared for the ceremony after breakfast – practising chants, movements, songs, getting face-painted – it was a great team effort. I suggested a structure based on the 3 Cauldrons we had been working with over the weekend – connected to the body, heart and spirit. We would process between the three circles of the roundhouse, labyrinth and fire circle with percussion and singing, honouring the divine masculine, the divine feminine and the divine child on the way. It flowed beautifully and ‘felt right’ – in the moment, responding to the spirit of place and the awen. Everyone had a chance to contribute something, to shine, and we did – as Eric pointed out – in our lovely facepaint from Amanda, seeming ‘more’ ourselves somehow. We ended in good spirits, sharing a final lunch – a much-welcome carrot and coriander soup thawing us out and bringing us back into our bodies. We had self-catered over the weekend – everyone had pitched in – and we enjoyed some lovely meals. This was part of the spirit of the weekend – a team effort. Everybody contributing ‘ingredients’ to the cauldron… Everyone had a talent, a gift, knowledge and skills to share. We all contributed to the bigger pattern.

The aim of the weekend was for participants to untap their creativity – to express the awen in whatever way it manifested – and through dance, poetry, storytelling, singing, cookery, face-painting, friendship, ceremony and speaking from the heart – it certainly did that.

After, we tidied up and had a few team photos before folk scattered to the wind. The atmosphere was positive. It seems the weekend was a success – phew! – although it took its toll on me… Coming after ten days’ of storytelling workshops in Italy, followed by five days getting home, then a long ride here, I was not going to be at my best (if the volcano hadn’t shut down the airports I would have had a week between the two to recover). I spent most of the weekend trying to keep up my energy levels and positivity, but inevitably the exhaustion manifested in a certain crabbiness and eventually, a short fuse. The intention of the weekend was (for me) to ‘replenish the cauldron’ but it felt like it had ‘depleted the cauldron’, in my case, anyway. This is the price, I guess, for running events – I had to hold the space and carry the group for the weekend, attending to their needs, personalities and peccadilloes (and they mine). It’s hard to fully relax in such circumstances, even though the place is beautiful and I did have ‘moments’ (like sitting by the lake, simply watching the glittering water) but I wasn’t able to relax sufficiently to get into the creative space I was helping people to all weekend. Ironically, I was the only one for whom the awen didn’t flow over the weekend – but, I am only human. I had burnt out, perhaps unsurprisingly, after my intense few days (3 weeks – I left for Italy on 6th April). I needed to stop, to be still, to be silent – for several days (after many days of talking and teaching I was ‘worded’ out). I was glad to hit the road and its solitude for a while.  As a left Cae Mabon I paused by Llyn Padarn, reading the poem plaque by Gillian Clarke about Snowdon (‘But for how long?’) and taking in the view. It is an awe-inspiring place. I hoped to take a little bit of its awen back with me. ‘Holding the dream’ I set off. The ride home wasn’t as pleasant – dodgy dense fog crossing the hairy roads of Snowdonia, then driving rain along the Welsh Marches – but it was good to be finally going home.

By Llyn Padarn – on my way home

Running the Dragon

Running the Dragon

1st March, 2009

Worms' Head - half way point - looking towards the Devil's Bridge

Worms' Head - half way point - looking towards the Devil's Bridge

Midday at Worm’s Head, Penrhyn-Gwr, on St David’s Day. A good place to be, in the Spring sunshine. The gulls and gannets shriek, the withdrawing waves roar in indignation (‘you may have won the battle, but not the war…’). The sea is turquoise – sky, a chalk-blue. A few wisps of cloud on the horizon – more over Devon and Somerset, south to England. Visitors seem to be queuing up to ‘run the dragon’, waiting for the tide to retreat sufficiently for the causeway to be safely exposed. Serendipity is with me today as I arrive at the right time to cross. Low tide is 14:40 and there’s a two and half hour window either side of this, so at 12.10 I will cross. For now, a moment to catch my thoughts.

Here at the dragon’s head I honour the spirit of Wales and its finest son of song, Taliesin – Penrhyn-Gwr to Penbeirdd…Hail!

A good place to reflect on my journey of a bard, as I reach the completion of the Way of Awen – may the dragon give me a final burst of awen!
The very end of the Worm’s Head – a dramatic stack – is approximately a mile out. Reaching it requires a tricky scramble over jagged rocks and running the gauntlet of the tide. Time it wrong and you can get cut off! It takes me fifty minutes of energetic effort to reach the end – carrying a twenty pound backpack as well, which nearly made me lose my balance and fall into a gulley at one scary point. Good job I’m wearing my tough motorbike gloves to stop my hands getting shredded. With enormous relief and satisfaction, I reach my goal…

Sitting in the sun on the head of Worm’s Head on a grassy ledge, eating my sandwiches, restoring my energy levels, and watching mighty waves rolling in. Standing on the endstack was literally a peak experience. I realised my nine month journey had come full circle – from Orme’s Head to Worm’s Head, from the far North of Wales to the far South – a satisfying symmetry. Which one is the head, which the tail? Or does the dragon have two heads? Then it dawned on me – it is Ourobouros, the dragon eating itself. The story does not end. One ‘tale’ begats another – each ending, another beginning. We have to join the story somewhere, but there is always a before-story and after-story, and many other paths along the way.

My story started back in the East Midlands – which seems like another universe compared to here, to my current life. The landlady of the B&B said, rather presumptuously, ‘you’re as Welsh as me’ – meaning what exactly who knows – but a little know fact is my middle name is Gerald, as in Giraldus Cambrensis: Gerald of Wales. Although I have no Welsh blood (as far as I know) this is a reassuring foreshadowing of what has become something of an obsession for me – what could be called Cambria-philia, a love of Wales.

So, I hail Wales, Cambria and the Cymru on St David’s Day and, of course, Taliesin Penbeirdd. May his name endure forever. I felt complete. A good place to ‘end’ my book, but not my journey along the Way of Awen. Like the dragon encircling the world – it has no end or beginning. A circle with no edges, whose centre is everywhere.

Reaching the end of the Worm’s head is like crossing the Bridge of Leaps to Scathach’s Isle of Shadows – one has to traverse razor-sharp rocks, perilous pathways and the Devil’s Bridge. It has a mythic initiatory quality to it. I imagine Caer Sidi on the end-stack and set off. All the time the clock of the tide is ticking, making the blood pump with excitement. There’s an element of Kêr-Ys here, or Cantre’r Gwaelod – the sea is always present, threatening to inundate the land at any moment, jealousy seizing back what it had given. One feels humbly in the lap of the goddess.

Mummery on Boxing Day

26th December

Boxing Day (so-named because servants and tradesfolk were given gift-boxes on this day by the larger houses – although now it seems synonymous with sales at places like Ikea – different kinds of boxes! Perhaps it should be renamed Flat-pack Day), AKA St Stephen’s Day is a traditional time for Mummers Play, at least round these parts. The oldest is in the Cotswold village of Marshfield, just north of Bath – now famed for its icecream and flapjacks! –

The Old Time Paper Boys by Kevan Manwaring

The Old Time Paper Boys by Kevan Manwaring

where at noon today the Old Time Paper Boys gather to perform their seasonal rite at five locations along the High Street (which is just as well, because it’s often hard to catch what they’re saying if they happen to face the wrong way, or if the wind is up – none are professional performers, so we shouldn’t expect them to project. The cast is drawn from a motley of real local characters – the butcher, the baker, a farmer, a postman, etc. They become such memorable moochers as ‘Saucy Jack with his family on his back’, Beelzebub with his club, Ten Penny Nit, Old Father Christmas, St George of course, and the Doctor (Who is now I regular feature on Xmas TV!).I once shared a flat with a guy – Marshfield born and bred – whose grandfather used to take part: the costume of paper rags was stored in their house, along with the script, such as it is (at one point, apparently, the costumes were made of leaves – which thrilled me with the thought of some primal fertility rite taking place in a forest clearing; this notion was somewhat disabused when I discovered the Mummers, the oldest in the region, probably only date from the 19th Century like alot of ‘ancient’ folklore). Still, it is wonderful to behold and gives Yuletide a refreshingly real, earthy quality after the tinsel and 2-D entertainment of Christmas – a sobering shock to the system, standing in the rain or freezing fog, watching a death and resurrection show. The script is fabulously nonsensical, tantalisingly fragmentary – like some half-understood radio transmission, cultural Chinese whispers (rather like the Mabinogion, the 13th Century collection of older oral Welsh tales written down by unwitting monks). There’s other Boxing Day Mummers locally in Southstoke and Keynsham. And on New Years Day the Widcombe Mummers perform their play – this has only been going for five years, and is open in its ‘newness’, featuring an anachronistic cast of traffic wardens, hobby horses, fools, and local figures such as ‘the King of the Beggars of Holloway’ (which my friend the late Tim Sebastion Woodman researched and first performed – indeed the last time I saw him fully conscious was in the Widcombe Social Club, New Year’s Day, 2006, when he had just watched the Mummers – too ill to perform that year, my friend Ian Davidson stepped into the role. Tim allowed the Mummers to use his Wassail Bowl – which was passed onto me after he died a month later). Every year, the Widcombe Mummers incorporate some topical issues, for instance a satirical stab at the Spa fiasco. This year they plan to bring in King Bladud’s Pigs, which stormed the city this summer.

I’ve been working on my own plays recently – dusting off the Mummers Play I wrote in 1994 (‘The Head of Winter’) which has only been performed once publicly so far, at the first Bardic Festival of Bath in 1998 in a commedia dell arte style in a chilly Walcot Chapel. My Bardic Chair winning poem, Spring Fall, was inspired by the ancient Mummers mask found under Stall Street, and now on display in the Roman Baths museum. It got me wondering what kind of play would have been performed in the Temple Precinct (a theatre was also discovered). And so I set about writing a mystery play about the springs – Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath was the result.

I also dug out a play I wrote about the perils of genetic engineering – an updated version of the Taliesin legend called ‘The Child of Everything’. This I typed up and sent off to a script competition at the Bristol Old Vic. I love the idea of grafting modern themes onto ancient myths (and vice versa). Mummers have always brought in topical references – witty asides to cock-a-snook at whoever deserves public mockery, usually those with too much money and power and too little sense. Guised in their shaggy costumes, often with blacked up faces, their anonymity allowed the Mummers a degree of satirical freedom. Their identities were kept ‘mum’. The pantomime is a later derivation of the Mummers Play and indeed the Mummers – relating right back to early Greek tragedy, performed in static masks – could be seen as the prototype of theatre. The masks of tragedy and comedy are still the symbol of theatre, summing up the most ancient repetoire and the bittersweetness of life.  (Incidentally, on Christmas Eve, the playwright Harold Pinter died of cancer of the liver, aged 76. One of the greats of modern theatre).

Yesterday, enjoying a quiet Christmas, I wrote the first draft of a new play, ‘Wassailing Avalon’, which dramatises the wassailing traditions of the West Country, which commonly take place on Old Twelfth Night, 17th January, weaving in local mythology… I hope one day to see all of these performed!

A friend gave me a copy of Hugh Lupton’s and Chris Wood’s ‘Christmas Champions’, which I heard when first broadcast on Radio 4 a couple of years ago and I highly recommend it – an enchanting and moving evocation of a tradition that connects people and place, combining storytelling, poetry, song and archive recordings of the original players. Put it on, pour yourself a glass of good cheer, sit back and enjoy.

Long live the Mummers!

Natural Contests


Master Duncan, 13th Bard of Bath

Sunday, 14th December

A kestrel hovers in the wind, wings wavering then knife-edged, against a cold winter sky. In perfect equilibrium with its element – its will and skill counterpoised with the icy contours of air. It drops a dozen feet, but keeps air-borne – a sword of Damocles hanging on a thread, keeping me on tenterhooks. I dare not move. A little closer and I could scare it off, break its concentration. Then it plunges, wings tucked in – beak first, a deadly arrow out of the blue. It disappears briefly from sight amongst the frost-bitten tussocks, then it emerges triumphantly, a black limp parcel clutched in its talons. It flies away to devour its prey, justly plucked from the austere larder of the land.

Further on, I watch three crows harangue a buzzard above a naked forest. They heckle it, attack it, yet it bears their assault with a stoic grace – flying away, out of sight, pursued by the black hooded hoodlums.

I was walking on Bathhampton Down, enjoying the cold sunlight, peace and space, after last night’s Battle of the Bards.

Nature is red and tooth and claw – it is part of life. That doesn’t mean we have to be cruel to each other, but that we should accept that a certain healthy competitiveness is also part of life (from the quickest sperm to the most successful predator – evolution encourages excellence. Nature isn’t sentimental. If you don’t make the grade, you don’t endure).  

The contest for the thirteenth Bard of Bath took place at the Mission Theatre on the edge of the city. I was asked to be one of the judges by the outgoing bard, Thommie Gillow, along with fellow Bard of Bath, Brendan Georgeson, and Sulyen Richard Caradon, Druid of Bath. There were five entrants, all who made a good effort. The theme, chosen by Thommie, was appropriately for the 13th Bard, ‘Superstition’. Most chose to simply list superstitions in verse, but a couple interpreted the theme more imaginatively – local screenwriter Dave Lassman performed a clever story about ‘the Cursed Screenplay’, which got the audience involved; but he was pipped at the post by an impressive performance by up-and-coming bard, Master Duncan. He entered last year, but was hampered by nerves and a joky approach which didn’t do him justice, but this year he had plainly taken it more seriously and had put some real thought into his piece. He deconstructed the theme with some intelligence and ingenuity. He couched the core message within an amusing framing narrative, but the heart of the piece, with its very bardic song, showed his true colours. He has a good folk voice – which, combined with his hip-hop style and satirical style offers an interesting hybrid. A bard should be able to walk between the worlds, and it sounds like Master Duncan might be able to reach out to younger audiences, as he has been doing to a certain extent already with his fortnightly Speakeasy open mics. He plans to continue his work, spreading the word – and he’s got off to a good start, with Channel Four trailing him yesterday on the run up to the contest (as one of the contestants). Amazingly, C4’s choice won. The other participants were interviewed before the winner was announced and some of the evening was filmed – to feature in one of the ‘3 Minute Wonder’ broadcasts. It seems Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has been down-sized – another victim of the credit crunch? It was a good evening, professionally hosted by Simon, of Emporium Cabaret. Ironically, it took place on the same night as the ‘X Factor’ finals (yawn). What a contrast! There seems to be a tendency in popular culture to dumb things down, so it was good to see the winner of our contest wasn’t the ones who simply played it for laughs. Although his style is accessible, Master Duncan had a serious message which his poem, ‘The Idiots are in Charge’, which he performed on receiving the Chair showed.

Some people dislike the nature of such contests – preferring a wishy-washy hippy approach, usually to avoid making hard, but critically valid, qualitative judgements (as at the Peat Moors Centre Bard of the Avalon Marshes contest, where the winner was drawn from  lots). Certainly everyone who enters any contest is a ‘winner’ in the sense that the fact of entering is an achievement. It takes some pluck to stand up there and be ‘judged’. Not pleasant, but as they say – ‘you have to be in it, to win it’. Obviously the desire to win the accolade (of Bard of Bath) is sufficient to push the participants beyond the ‘fear’ threshold. It is good to rise to a challenge. It helps us to grow. Such contests encourage excellence in the arts, rather than rewards mediocrity. Many prefer mediocrity – perhaps because it makes them feel better about themselves, but actually most of intuitively respond to excellence – when we see a true ‘star’ perform, in a film, in a play; or when we behold a work of art by a genius – a painting, a book. I don’t think this appreciation of the finer things is elitism, it is simply a respect for true craftsmanship, for mastery of a form. Virtuosity is dazzling.  It shows what human beings are capable of. Surely we should strive for our highest potential? Certainly the Bard of Bath isn’t elitist, as last night proved. The winner seemed to be a popular choice – and Master Duncan’s success sends out a clear message, that the Bardic Tradition is something for everyone and at home in the Twenty First Century.  As he pointed out we must ‘evolve or die’. This is what I’ve been striving for these last ten years, since winning the Chair myself in 1998.

And it occured to me, as I watched the 22 year old Master Duncan perform – standing up there and shining – that we was watching a modern re-enacment of the Taliesin legend. The youthful bard wins the contest, defeating the older bards of King Maelgwyn’s court. The awen shone out of him, and Taliesin’s spirit lives on.

Richard, Brendan, Thommie and myself ‘initiated’ Master Duncan into the Gorsedd with the Druid’s Vow and an Awen on stage; and then I presented our youngest, newest member with a reference copy of The Book of the Bardic Chair – which should give him all the background he needs to fulfil his bardic duties over the coming year.

May the Awen flow for him, and may many be encouraged to come forth to enter (or re-enter) next year.

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