Tag Archives: winter

The Treasure on our Doorstep

Bardic Banquet  Northampton 18 Dec 2013

Bardic Banquet
Northampton 18 Dec 2013

Sometimes we have to travel far before we discover the treasure on our doorstep, before we appreciate the riches beneath our feet. Many of us over the festive period have been travelling home these last few days to spend time with family, and open presents by that symbolic axis mundi – the Christmas tree, marking the centre of our world, for a while. In the week leading up to Christmas I journeyed back to my birth-town, Northampton, to perform in the Bardic Banquet on Wednesday (a merry knees-up organised by my old friends Justin and Jimtom on 18 Dec at the Labour Club). I performed stories from my new collection, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, which I had researched over the last two summers – travelling the county on my Triumph Legend motorbike, folk tale goggles firmly in place (Google Glass eat your heart out – I have the best apps possible: imagination and curiosity). While in town I popped into WH Smiths and Waterstones, to sign copies of my book – signatures have never been more satisfying (on Tuesday, under the whole of the moon, I went to see my long-time faves The Waterboys in Bristol, at the Colston Hall, and got Mike Scott to sign his autobiography, Adventures of a Waterboy – now I was signing my own books)!

Mike Scott stands behind

A happy fan – and personal hero, Mike Scott stands behind – a real gent

 

Mike Scott and me - backstage after The Waterboys awesome show, Bristol 17 Dec 2013

Later in the week, back in Stroud, I hosted the Story Supper on Solstice Eve (20 Dec) at Black Book Cafe; and then a Winter Solstice Soiree at mine (21 Dec), where my friends gathered to light a wheel of light, making wishes and offering prayers to our loved ones and a better world; before sharing stories, songs and poems around the hearth over a mead-horn (Wassail!). Truly, the real magic of Christmas is found in such heart-warming hearth-gatherings.

A Winter Solstice wheel of light 21 December 2013

A Winter Solstice wheel of light 21 December 2013

Here are a couple of stories from my recent collection which relates how someone discovered the treasure on his doorstep…One is printed below, the other can be viewed via the Youtube link…

http://youtu.be/AeQkRksXEzU

029. Angel and the Cross

The Angel and the Cross

Do you know where the centre of England is? This has been a matter of debate and dispute for centuries, but the matter was finally settled by divine intervention.

It began far from England, in the heat and dust of the Holy Land.

The weary pilgrim placed down his staff and sat down by the side of the rubble-strewn road and rubbed his sore feet. His shoes, made by his own fair hands – like father, like son, he had carried on his family’s trade – had served him well, carrying him across Europe and into the Middle East, along long perilous trails – braving wildwood, bandit, war, tricksters and peddlers of false grails.
Taking off his hat, sporting the scallop-shell of the pilgrim, he fanned himself with it – it was so hot here, so bright. Coming from a softer, damper land, he had still not got used to it. Squinting, he looked up at the city before him – the various temples and spires competing for dominance. Bells rang out over the hustle and bustle of thousands of people coming and going through its gates. It was the 8th Century of Our Lord, and he had made it to Jerusalem. His soul was surely saved by this pious act. And he needed salvation. His soul was in a poorer condition than his poor old feet.

He acted the penniless and penitent pilgrim here, but back home he was a man of power, of influence. He had been cruel, yes, and vain. He had acquired wealth for himself in countless dubious ways. His coffers were full but his heart was empty. All of those glittering coins and trinkets had left him unfulfilled.

There had to be something more.

And that is when, one day, walking amid the noisome stalls of Sheep Street, he had an idea. He would go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to purge himself of his sins.

The pilgrim lined up and entered through one of the gates, under the stern eyes of the guards. And then he was in! Jerusalem, in all its glory, opened up before him. He stopped and stared, only to be elbowed out of the way, making him step in the gutter. Yet, he was so euphoric from the ardours of his journey, he didn’t care. He had made it. He looked around, grinning like a moon-touched loon. The narrow streets were full of noise and colour – the cries of trinket sellers, icon hawkers, fortune tellers, farmers with their produce arrayed before them – such exotic wares the likes of which he had never seen before. With the last of his coins, he purchased a large, succulent looking fruit and held it to his nose, savouring its smell. It was enough to make him salivate. The pilgrim imagined its cool juice, running down his throat, assuaging his burning thirst.

But, just before he sank his teeth into it, a passerby bumped into him, making him drop it. The pilgrim cursed under his breath, casting the stranger an evil stare – but it was too late, the perpetrator was lost in the crowd, and his fruit was rolling away from him.

Quickly, he pursued it as it rolled down the alleyways, away from the main crowds. Soon he was lost in a maze of passageways – perfect for thieves – but he could only think about his fruit.

He would not let it go!

He had come so far, endured such adversity – he would not let such a simple thing thwart him.

The fruit occasionally caught the odd dusty beam of light which penetrated the maze.

Nearly … within … reach.

The pilgrim lunged, just as the fruit rolled down a gap between two tumble-down buildings.

Cursing he knelt down and peered in. Luck! The object of his desire had got stuck against something blocking the narrow gap. The place smelt foetid, but he had to get that fruit. Gingerly, he stuck in his arm and, straining, reached for it. Something scuttled over his naked arm. A large black rat darted out of the gap and along the edge of the buildings! He quickly pulled out his arm, rubbed it vigorously. Then, composing himself, he tried again. Nearly … nearly … there! He had his hand around it – and triumphantly pulled it out. He rubbed it free of filfth and sank his teeth into it with a satisfied sigh. For a while he was lost in the pleasure of the taste – sharp but refreshing. Then, wiping his mouth, he peered into the gap out of curiosity. What was it that had blocked it?

There, he could see it now. An old stone cross – wedged inbetween the buildings. How odd. Perhaps it might be worth something.

Maybe his fortune had changed.

Laughing, he reached in and strained and strained until his fingernails scraped the stone. Slowly, painfully, he worked it towards his grasp – there, he had it! Making sure no one was around, he carefully pulled it out and, dusting it free of cobwebs, he inspected it.

It felt old, very old. Solid and heavy.

As he ran his fingers over it, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He felt he was being watched.

A strange light filled the darkened alleyway, and a benign warmth.

The pilgrim slowly turned and beheld before him a dazzling figure, glowing in rainbow colours – overlapping planes of light like a stained glass window in a cathedral.

The being spoke to him – directly, into his heart – in a voice warm and enfolding.

‘Who are you…?’

‘Take this cross and bury it – in the very heart of your homeland.’

‘Where…?

‘The precise centre… Do so, and all will be well.’

The vision faded, and the pilgrim was left shaking. What had he seen? Perhaps there had been something wrong with that fruit. Afeared, he threw the pulpy core away. The stone cross was solid enough in his hand. That felt real.

Heart pounding, he got up.

Wrapping it in a rag, he placed the stone cross in his satchel and made his way quickly along the alleyway – walking with increasing purpose.

The pilgrim beheld his old home town with a sigh of relief. The journey back had been hard. Many a time he had come close to losing his sacred relic, but he had held onto it for dear life – amid the stormy crossings and dark nights. And now he was finally and he wept at the sight of Hamtun. Humble as it was, it was his home … and he was overcome with emotion at seeing it again. There was times when it looked as though he never would. But something had driven him. The words of an angel – yes, that is what it was. He knew that now. He had not told a soul – he did not want to risk the magic leaking away in the cold light of day. This had happened to him for a reason. It was his sacred duty.

He went to St Peters to pray in gratitude for his safe return. As he knelt there, the Holy Spirit descended and told him precisely where he must bury the cross.

A man on fire, he set about his task with a fervour.

In the middle of the night, when not a soul was in sight, he took his spade and dug. The spirit guided him – here, here was the very centre of England.

Who would have thought it? The bottom of Gold Street, at the crossroads with Horsemarket Street. This was the heart of the land. Every day, countless folk cross it unknowing that they tread on sacred soil. The cross was buried deep, the hole filled in, the soil patted down, so that not a mark, not a trace would reveal its whereabouts.

Yet he knew.

The hidden cross in the soil … marking the very centre of England by divine revelation!

Notes: with thanks to my fellow Northamptonian, the now London-based actor Robert Goodman – who first told me about this over a cup of tea in London.

From Northamptonshire Folk Tales by Kevan Manwaring, published by The History Press, 2013

This Fearful Tempest

His noble kinsman: most degenerate king!
But, lords, we hear this fearful tempest sing,
Yet seek no shelter to avoid the storm;
We see the wind sit sore upon our sails,
And yet we strike not, but securely perish.

The Tragedy of King Richard II

William Shakespeare

 

The terrible storms that have hammered Britain today are perhaps a physical manifestation of the Kali-esque tides of this time of year – as we lead up to Samhain, All Hallows and the Day of the Dead. These festivals of death (and, sometimes, rebirth) teach us to not only honour our dead, but also to let go of what we need to (our physical forms, our possessions, and materiality in general) – to practice the Art of Dying. It is a time to take stock, cull what no longer serves us (with compassion) and move, metaphorically, to our ‘winter pasture’. Wintering means cutting the wheat from the chaff, quitting fooling, and being prepared. It is also a delicious time of tending the hearth, warm gatherings, feasting, storytelling, and the inward spiral – as we turn our energies inwards in readiness for the deep dreaming of winter and the wisdom it will bring us – if we work with (rather than run away) from its winnowing tide.

This time last year I was preparing for the launch of ‘This Fearful Tempest’ – the last in my five-volume fantasy series, The Windsmith Elegy. I launched it at Samhain (Oct 31st, the Celtic Festival of the Ancestors) – this seemed appropriate as the bulk of the series is set in the ‘Afterlands’ and seeks to honour the Lost of History, as I call them – the arrested narratives of various figures from myth and history.  The day I launched it, there was a massive storm in America, and, a year on – Britain is hit by a similar one… So it seemed appropriate to share the tempestuous opening here…

This Fearful Tempest by Kevan Manwaring - front cover by Steve Hambidge

This Fearful Tempest by Kevan Manwaring – front cover by Steve Hambidge

Prologue

Through the torn skein of mist and shadow the ghostly threshold appears: a sheer wall of white rising from the furious sea. The grey waves break into light as they dash themselves against its fastness – jagged flanks of chalk. An x-ray of a land. The white cliffs loom closer and closer, filling the field of vision. A head-on collision threatens at any moment. A tide, irresistible, meeting an object, immovable. Then, from over the cliff’s edge trickles one red line. Deep red. A horse-tail of crimson. Then another pours. Another, like liquid bars. Until, the red tide breaks over the cliffs, obliterating the white. Cliffs of blood. And a scream that pierces the land in two.

Chapter One

Landfall

Go by God’s road to the Tower of Cronus
Where the Airs, daughters of Ocean
Blow round the Island of the Blest.

Pindar’s Odes, Pythean Odes, X, II

Kerne struggled to control Llyr as the winds howled around it. He could hardly see – the rain lashed into his face. Amelia was a blurry figure at the helm, bound to the wheel. The windsmith was exhausted beyond any limit he might have thought possible. He had been windsinging for hours, days now it seemed, sustaining their airship aloft by the power of his summoning. A combination of the east and south wind had served them well. The combined forces of Eurus and Notus had propelled them at high speed from the land beyond the south wind towards their destination, which now, presumably, stretched out below – Hyperborea, the Land beyond the North Wind. Albion. Britain, as it appears in the Afterlands of Shadow World.

One step removed from home.

So close, yet so far.

Although it was the wrong side of death Kerne could not help feeling an overwhelming sense of excitement, of relief, of homecoming, in every fibre of his being. He had circumnavigated Shadow World in his quest to master the secrets of the Four Winds and his goal was nearly in sight. If he could learn the mysteries of the North Wind, Boreas, he would have the keys he needed to get home: the windlass that would open the Angel Gates for him. That cursed enchantress, Aveldra, had brought him and Madoc here – alive in the land of the dead, until one of them had to die – but he would cross back by his own cunning art. His white shadow clung to him like a wet ghost, a smudge of chalk against the grey blur of mist.

‘We’re going home, my friend,’ Kerne communicated to his constant companion since Ashalantë, beneath the overtones of his windsinging. His other companion from that doomed city carried her own scars of guilt – stripped of her gramarye for breaking her priestess vow, Amelia had lost her own co-traveller, Noonan. Together they carried the burden of its destruction – the deserts of Hypernotus should have burnt it away, but had only served to increase the pain. A burning glass which had singed them to the quick.

His wind-dogs howled around him, as Llyr creaked and groaned in the maelstrom. She’s barely holding together, thought Kerne. A moth to a flame. It reminded him of his flight in the BE-2 across the battlefield of Mons with Madoc, that fateful morning – the dawn of the Great War. He had not expected to return home in such fashion, on a flying ship that resembled a giant mandolin, powered by his own gramarye. A windsmith of three winds.

Suddenly the airship snagged something and one of the wings snapped off. The craft span around, a stricken bird, and hit another cable suspended in the sky. This time a large bloated object came into sight – revealed momentarily amid the clashing dreadnoughts of clouds by a sigil of lightning – a giant balloon-like creature, its saggy folds of transparent skin half-inflated with luminescent gases swirling within. From it snaked swaying tendrils, barbed and deadly – crackling with a strange light.

And it wasn’t alone.

The sky was mined with them.

They had flown straight into this aerial shoal. If a better defense could have been devised to protect the skies of Hyperborea it would be hard to imagine. They had done their job. One whipcrack of a tendril and they were done.

Winged, their craft was going into a tailspin. They were flung about, screaming out for each other – hands straining in the maelstrom. There was a howling chaos all about them. Through the rags of cloud details of the land below began to appear. It looked like some kind of cove. Cliffs, suddenly white in the arc-light of the storm, loomed up.

Kerne strained with all his awen to soften the craft’s landing with a blast of air. It felt like giant hands caught the stricken vessel, but then drop it at the last minute as the ship smashed into the rocks.

The rain drummed against the broken fuselage, which lay twisted and jagged around them, a toy guitar smashed to pieces by a petulant child. Kerne had been thrown clear and awoke in a stunned heap, half embedded in a dune. He spat wet sand from his lips. His whole body ached. Sometimes he wished he was dead – to avoid the pain of being alive. With a cry of agony and rage he pulled himself from his bunker, and slowly got up, relieved to find his limbs working, although they protested with every movement as he staggered to his feet.

Swaying he looked around him, his head still spinning. Cliffs loomed up, running with water. Waves crashed in, cold and relentless. And the broken craft that had carried them around Shadow World lay in a smouldering heap – its splintered shell hissing with rain.

The first thought that came to him, more of an anguish cry of realisation, was: Amelia.

He stumbled towards the wreckage, slipping on the sand and shingle, and broken bits of craft. His heart drummed louder than the rain.

They had come so far…

Like a mad man Kerne scrambled about the detritus, heedless of his own safety. ‘Amelia!’ he cried out, voice ragged, drowned by the rain.

In his frantic search, his wind dogs scattered the looser wreckage hither and thither.

Suddenly he heard a muffled cry, the one human sound against the dead noise.

Kerne pulled away another part of the airship and was greeted by the sight he had not dared hope for – Amelia alive, protected by a wishbone of fallen masts.

‘Amelia, are you…?’

A cough, then a voice, faint against the squall. ‘I’m alright, I think. Shaken. I’m glad to see you! I feared you were dead!’

Kerne and Earhart embraced, overwhelmed with relief.

‘This bird is well and truly cracked.’

‘Come on, let’s get you out of there.’

Kerne gently helped Amelia up and, suddenly, she nearly collapsed. The aviatrix cried out in pain.

‘Sit here,’ Kerne commanded. He examined the ankle, gently moving it. ‘Can you feel your toes? Wriggle them. Good.’

‘Good!?’

‘They’re still moving. It looks like a bad sprain. We need to find some shelter.’ Kerne looked up at the cliffs, sheer and unscaleable from this angle. ‘There has to be some way up.’ He cast a glance at the angry waves. ‘We can’t stay here, the tide is coming in.’ He pursed his lips. Rest here a mo out of the rain, and I’ll salvage what I can … ‘ Kerne cast an eye over the crash-site and sighed. ‘Don’t worry, darling. We’ve been in worse scrapes and survived, haven’t we?’

Amelia nodded, smiling bravely.

The contents of Llyr were scattered and ruined. He looked in despair. Ollav Fola’s beautiful work, ruined. Yet it had served them well. Kerne set up scavenging what he could – and filled a pack with rations, water, blanket, a change of clothes. Then, just as he turned to go, he spotted his journal, which he gratefully snapped up and placed within the pack, wrapped in its waxy skin.

‘Not much, but it’ll do for now – we could maybe come back for more, once I’ve found us some shelter. Come on. I’ve found you a crutch.’

Kerne helped his companion up, who winced a little. With one arm over his shoulders supporting the majority of her weight, she was able to hobble, using the stick he’d found – a bit of the ship – as leverage.

‘What a pair we make,’ Amelia joked painfully. ‘Behold, Albion, your saviours are here!’

They laughed at this, blinking in the rain, as they slowly picked their way out of the wreckage.

‘Look, there’s a way up there. Some steps.’ Next to a rivulet which cascaded into the cove, they could make out some crude steps hewn into the rock. ‘Do you think you can manage it?’

‘This bird hasn’t given up yet, mister.’

‘Good. We’ll take it at your pace, okay – as you would say?’

‘A-OK.’ Amelia tried to give the thumbs up and failed, making them both laugh.

‘This reminds me of when I made landfall on my first solo Atlantic crossing. I was heading for England, ended up off the coast of Ireland. What strange accents you Brits have, I thought to myself! They probably thought the same. We couldn’t understand each other at first, as I called out to the watchers on the shore. I must have seemed like from another planet. But, boy, was I glad to see them! I was rowed ashore and given the best cup of tea of my life!’

‘Ah, a cup of tea,’ grunted Kerne, helping her up the steps, ‘now you’re talking.’

Up and up they ascended, in slow, painful movements, catching breath and girding loins between each push. At the top, breathless, they looked back at the broken craft below, now being licked by the greedy waves.

‘At least I’m in better shape than your old bird. I don’t think you’ll get her airborne again.’

Kerne glanced down. ‘Sometimes you have to shed your skin. Let go.’

‘Come on, Plato. We’ve got to get out of this infernal weather!’

The new arrivals struggled on upwards, over the lip of the cove, into the rain-darkened land.

 Extract from This Fearful Tempest by Kevan Manwaring Copyright 2013

www.windsmithelegy.com

On Thursday Awen Publications Celebrates its 10th Anniversary in Stroud with a showcase of some of its many talented authors –

Black Book Cafe, 7.15pm. Come and join us!

 

Snowdrops

Snowdrops
27th February

When the snows cleared a couple of weeks ago the snowdrops were there. They had already raised their timorous heads before this Cold Snap and had survived its harshness, despite, or maybe because of their small frailty. Too insignificant to be noticed by the frost giant? The snow gods? And yet easily trod underfoot.
Snowdrops are a welcome sight – the first tenuous signs of Spring, although that may be weeks away. Their white petals add a bright firmament to the gloomy days of winter. There is a collective yearning for the light at this time – in the Northern Hemisphere – as we slowly escape the point of singularity of the solstice. Imbolc seems to be its particular event horizon – once we have crossed it, we are free of winter’s gravity. Snowdrops cluster around its edges like stars pulled into a black hole. And yet they reach in the opposite direction, pushing up from the dark earth. Growing out of death, like the Simbelmynë flowers that grow on the barrow graves by Edoras of the Rohan in The Two Towers, called in the common speech of men ‘Evermind’: ‘They blossomed in all the seasons, like the bright eyes of Elves, glinting in the starlight.’ (A Tolkien Bestiary, David Day, p215)
At the weekend I met up with a friend at Nympsfield long barrow, high up on the Cotswold escarpment overlooking the Severn plain. Returning for tea and cake to her lovely cottage, similarly situated, we passed a country churchyard at Edge filled with white flowers amongst the stones.
Life determinedly returns, however transient, though its roots cling to mortal clay. Something makes it grow, despite its brief life. Or perhaps because of it. It feels the impulse more urgently. Every day is more precious, sweeter the dew. Whatever may have befallen us in the past, whatever ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ it is hard not to feel some sense of renewal, of a new chance, with the virgin year before us. All things are possible on its tabula rasa. Snowdrops are a symbol of that most precious commodity, hope. In these bleak times, when the economic house of cards crashes down around us, it seems foolhardy to be hopeful and yet more imperative than ever – if we are not succumb to the riptide of gloom. In a speech made by President Obama in the light of the economic crsis, the Guardian said that ‘he has undammed the springs of hope.’ (‘The Springs of Hope’, Guardian, 26.02.09) If we listened to the news every day, with its tales of ‘toxic debt’, banks going bust, big firms going under, fat cat payoffs, nuclear folly and celebrity cancer, it would be hard not to surrender to despair. But nature quietly, insistently, tells us, not to give up. That the world will keep turning whatever we do to it, or ourselves.
To feel better, all one has to do is walk out into the garden of Spring and enjoy the morning of the year. The world is still beautiful.
‘Sing cucu, sing cucu now.’

White Rainbow

Snow on Bathwick Hill, 5th Jan 09

Snow on Bathwick Hill, 5th Jan 09

5th February

Just walked back from the station through heavy snow – the world turned into a snow-dome.  Heavy snowfall in the Bath area over last couple of  days. The first wave came on Monday and brought the nation to a standstill – a flurry of snow and it all grinds to a halt! We just can’t cope, it seems. I can hear my Icelandic and Finnish friends laughing. But I think it’s more than just Anglo-Saxon ineptitude. I think it’s just a secret excuse to bunk off work and go and have a snow ball fight. Snow brings out the child in all of us (perhaps because, for people my generation, most memories of decent snow are related to childhood, when we used to have ‘proper winters’). Monday saw a wave of ‘mass-skiving’ strike the country – as evidenced by Facebook confessionals, photoes, videos, texting, twittering, etc. A adultlescent dawn chorus. A snowfall seems to turned even the hardest cynic goofy. It was wonderful, going for an amble up the hill this afternoon – usually a quiet loop around the National Trust slopes overlooking the city – to see it populated by a swathe of snow-junkies, young and old, making snowmen, sledding, throwing snowballs, juggling snowballs, rolling about in it giggling – high on snow. Toddlers pulled on tiny sledges by parents. Teenagers on tea-trays. Three men on a binlid. Snowfolk of various sizes and skill. An inevitable snow-penis – like a white May-pole – around which the snow-children played. We are made innocent again. The world is reminted, layered in broken slabs of Kendal mint cake.

Leaving the slope of fun, I headed for virgin fields to leave my Man Friday prints, the compacting snow making a polystyrene sound.  The familiar had become a film set. A special effect. I had to take photoes to remind myself what I was seeing – my neck of the woods, re-rendered as a Brueghel painting. 

I saw other snow art on the way to London later that afternoon. A snow-couple – the snowman and his wife, sitting watching the 15:13 to Paddington. Other spirits of the snow sat stoically considering their inevitable dissolution in backyards and parks. Michelin families rolled up winter into a ball, leaving negative slug-trails of naked grass. In Hyde Park, by the Serpentine Gallery, someone had sculpted an impressive snow-head, like the head of Bran the Blessed, singing still, stopping time – as snow seems to – until the strong door of reality is opened once again. Bran’s head was taken to London by the heart-weary seven who survived and buried beneath the White Mount, where now the Tower of London stands. The ravens (Bran’s bird) there have their wings clipped, because it is prophesied that if they were to ever leave, the country would fall. Bran’s head was buried facing France to protect the land from invaders, like the striking oil refinery workers who wished they could hold back the inevitable tide of market forces. ‘British jobs for British workers’ and yet even Bran’s role as tutelary guardian was usurped by another ‘foreign’ incomer, Arthur, who dug him up. Even magical protectionism can fail. As I passed the statue of Peter Pan, a raven landed nearby and looked at me with its black Odin eye. I doffed my cap to both – the forces of joy and death – and continued onto my evening class at Imperial College, a session on genre-busting with my writing students.

I returned home late. Tired. The night turned into a swirling flurry of TV screen static, stuck between stations, whispering from its glass world.

Exactly a year ago on this day, my Dad was cremated. In the summer, just before what would have been his 70th, my mother, sister and myself took the urn (heavy as mortality) over to one of his favourite haunts – where he used to take us walking the dogs as children. There, on a perfect sunny day we scattered the ashes. They made a summer frost on the green blades. I picked some up and let it run through my fingers, watching the particles dissipate in the light breeze. Then gently, so, so gently, I brushed the dust of my father into the earth, leaving no sign of his passing visible to the world. Only a white absence remained inside of us, as cold and as silent as snow.

Now we have planted a silver birch tree for him there (the first tree to establish itself after the icesheets withdraw) and the whiteness has taken on a new significance – a white of potential, for it is the colour that contains all colours. It is the beginning of the spectrum. A white rainbow.

Inklings of Spring

Imbolc, 1st February

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

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

The Bride of Spring

In darkest hour of the year

she arises.

Casting off her shadowy gown

as she steps over the horizon –

by sun king kissed,

borne by his golden down.

A dress of frosted cobwebs

veils maiden skin.

Within a seasons turning

the crone has become virgin.

Snowdrops touch her and turn into flowers,

as the slumbering land stirs

in these formative hours.

The earth softens at her feet

where buds shake free their winter bed.

Newborn lambs begin to bleat –

insistent mouths by ewes milk fed.

Rooster heralds her on the ground.

Above, the feathered chorus

make naked trees resound.

We awake to a changing world.

Her white magic revealed –

a petal uncurled.

Stone bound man

let your proud bells ring,

for we are welcomed into her garden

as she stand at the gates of spring.

 

The infant year she presents,

placing the future in our hands.

A gift of renewed innocence,

restoring the egg timer sands…

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

Winter walking

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

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

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

Rock of Ages

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

Solstice Celebrations

Solstice Sunrise

Solstice Sunrise

22nd December

After a busy week, tying up loose ends and completing projects – last classes, admin, the first draft of my radio drama, The Rabbit Room – a flurry of seasonal celebrations this weekend, from which I’m still recovering!

Saturday, Helen (8th Bard of Bath) and her partner, John the blacksmith, held a gathering at their new shared house over at Southstoke, a large house on the edge of Bath owned by Phil and Jenny. There’s about 8 living in this ‘unintentional community’, which has a green ethos as it’s bedrock. Helen read from her new children’s book, Hope and the Magic Martian, plus a couple of her poems by candlelight, and then there were open floor spots. I did a couple – my mistletoe poem (‘All heal’) and ‘Follow the sun road home’, which I wrote after visiting the nearby long barrow at Stoney Littleton on 21st December 2005. Jay Ramsay was also present and performed some of his profound, heart-felt poems. We also had a good heart-to-heart. And it was lovely to connect with Helen and John again – it’s been quite a while, although I saw Helen at ‘Dancing for the Earth’ late November. As with Jay, Helen is completely committed to her path – and performs with absolute conviction. A woman of integrity and talent.

As of happens this time of year there was more than one party happening on the same night, and I wanted to pop into Kim and Phil’s later – but the taxi driver had some trouble finding me, out in the sticks, due to being misdirected by his office. He finally caught up with me as I hiked along the road back to ‘civilisation’. I made it to the second party, high above Bath on Richmond Place at about 11.30pm! Although folk were surprised to see me, the party was still very much in full swing and it was nice to see folk. I didn’t stay too long as I was seriously flagging by this point, and there was alot to do the next day…

As was glad I had done the bulk of preparation for my solstice celebration the day before, as I woke a little late and a little delicate! Still, I managed to give the place a quick clean and have everything ready for when guests would arrive after the solstice ceremony in the Circus, which I dashed to. Here we publicly declared ‘in the eye of the sun’, Master Duncan as the new Bard of Bath, and celebrated the turning of the wheel with a good ceremony from Sulyen Richard Caradon and his partner, Misha, former Ovate of Bath. There was only eight of us but we did the works, and it felt good – especially as the sun came out in the middle of David’s story, right on cue! Hearing Master Duncan perform one of his poems which started ‘There’s too many poets…!’ was great as well – his voice booming around the three crescents of the Circus. I wonder if Nicolas Cage was listening in?

Afterwards, I swiftly made my way back to flat, joined almost straight away by Richard, Misha, Lizzie and Mairead – and so the party began! It was a relaxed afternoon affair – which was just as well after the night before! There was a lovely atmosphere created as folk gathered around my hearth and shared stories, songs and poems on light, rebirth, renewal and winter in general. Mairead led us in some singing ’rounds’. Sheila sang some beautiful Gaelic carols. Richard shared his ‘green song’. Svanur arrived later to share with us an Icelandic tale, which was a treat. Also had Mika, a Finnish research student and his wife, Maarit, present – so with all our ‘tales from the North’ we had a distinctly Arctic feel. Anthony told the amusing story of how the bear lost its tale, and his partner, Kirsty, shared her own funny story. I asked a couple of people to recite SpringFall, my bardic chair winning poem, (10 years old!) and David and Misha kindly obliged. It was a real thrill to hear it being performed by other voices for the first time. It was designed for two actors, a man and a woman, and was originally performed by myself and Emily at ‘Enchanted Wood’, Walcot Chapel, Summer 98. I have just produced a tenth anniversary edition of the booklet, and today was the launch. In the spirit of MR James, I read out the previously unpublished ghost story, ‘Taking the Waters’, from the new edition. All I needed was a smoking jacket!

The gathering slowly wound down by about 7 or 8, which was my intent. The final stragglers left and I cleared up the aftermath – well worth the mess! It was great to have a gathering at the Cauldron again – I haven’t felt like it since last Twelfth Night (my Dad dying five days after). It was wonderful for the house to be filled with awen and good cheer again – the lovely warm atmosphere in the room after everyone had departed was a clear sign it had been a successful event, as was my own ‘warm feeling. Forging such memories fill one’s heart.

After a dark, difficult year in many ways, for many of us – it really felt like a rekindling of the light.

I felt so fired up afterwards, that I typed out my old mummers’ play, The Head of Winter, also performed ten years ago at the first Bardic Festival of Bath in a commedia dell arte style by local friends – it had been hand-written back then and needed tidying up. Having worked on drama for stage, screen and radio lately I found it easy to lick it into shape. The next morning I posted it on the Silver Branch forum – offering my merry contribution for midwinter amusement.

All Heal

 

Between the earth and the stars

it hangs like a threat

of love,

a promise of bliss.

White bubbles to

burst on your lips like a kiss.

 

This is old druid magic, ancient fertility

 rite in your living room,

live in front of plasma screen.

Raise a glass to the golden bough,

to Baldur’s bane,

Aeneas’ passport to Hades and back.

 

On oak and lime and apple

how the mistletoe glows

like a swarm of green bees,

berries of awen waiting

for the glint of sickle

in the virgin midwinter sun.

 

 

Kevan Manwaring

Christmas Eve 2006