Mother Julian wrote, “These revelations were shewed to a simple creature that knew no letter, the year of our Lord 1373, the 8th day of May.” A contradiction in terms. If she knew no letters, how was she able to write that sentence? In her book The Way of Julian of Norwich, Sheila Upjohn provides a number of possible explanations. Firstly is the idea that Julian wrote in English but knew no Latin. In Fourteenth Century England Latin was the authoritative language of the Church. It would be a further nine years before John Wycliffe completed his translation of the Bible into English, for which, and for arguing that Scripture be the authoritative centre of Christianity, he was posthumously excommunicated and condemned as a heretic. If Julian knew no Latin she would have been regarded as functionally illiterate by the Church.
Another theory is that at the time when Julian received her visions she was illiterate, but later learned to read and write English so that she might put to paper the message she had received. A contemporary of Julian, Margery Kempe, a mystic of the Christian tradition who lived in nearby King’s Lynn, is regarded as being the first woman to write an autobiography in English. However, we know that Kempe was unlettered. Her story was dictated to a scribe. If Julian describes herself as being unlettered, is it not possible that Revelations of Divine Love was also transcribed by dictation?
Be that as it may, Julian was a woman, and in Fourteenth Century England this meant she had little status, regardless of her ability to read and write. Remarkably then for the time, although she is at pains to point out her lowly status, she is also firm in her belief that despite her gender she has the same right as any to speak of the goodness of God. The following is a modern translation from the first draft of Revelations of Divine Love.
God forbid that you should say or take it that I am a teacher, for I do not mean that, nor never meant it. I am an unlettered woman, poor and simple. But I know well that, what I say, I have it from the showing of Him who is a mighty teacher – and I tell it to you for love, for I would to God it were known, and my fellow Christians helped on to greater loathing of sin and a deeper love of God. But because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I should not tell you of the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time that it was His Will that it should be known?
This brought to my mind some passages from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:25
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
1 Corinthians 1:27
God’s decision to impart His message to an unlettered woman in Fourteenth Century Norwich would undoubtedly appear as foolishness to the patriarchal hierarchy of the time, which was, ironically, dominated by the Church. This was why Julian and her subsequent followers kept her writings hidden from the authorities. In the same way God’s decision to place into the arms of a young, unmarried Jewish girl, “a Saviour who is Christ the Lord” was regarded as foolishness by the authorities of the time. This is the foolishness of which Paul speaks. It is foolishness as the world perceives it, not as God perceives it.
Similarly, had the church authorities of Fourteenth Century Norwich discovered and read Julian’s writings, they undoubtedly would also have regarded as foolishness, if not outright heresy, her notions on the gender of God.
As truly as God is our father, so, just as truly, God is our mother. And he showed this in everything, especially in those sweet words when he said: ‘It is I.’ That is to say: ‘It is I, the strength and goodness of fatherhood. It is I, the wisdom of motherhood’.
Despite the insistence of much of the Church in clinging to gender exclusive language, gender is not, nor has ever been, something that has coloured my notions of God. I suppose “Parent, Offspring and Holy Entity” doesn’t have quite the poetic ring of “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Moreover, I can’t help but feel that rumination on the nature of the Trinity is a particularly ineffective use of time and energy when “capital crimes, chewed, swallowed and digested, before us lie.” Though that may depend on one’s understanding of the role of church. Are we, as Christian’s called to affect social justice or to seek out our own redemption and salvation? Are the two mutually exclusive?
A few years ago a young lesbian couple joined my walking group. With a shared interest in photography we soon became friends. As I have come to know them I have seen how much dedication and devotion they have to each other, certainly way more than I could muster in any of the failed relationships I have left in my wake. They will be moving from Manchester soon and I will miss them. They have brought friendship and joy to my life.
What I take from these passages of Mother Julian’s then, is how important it is for me to be aware of God’s presence in the world around me, the huge high wholeness of God, whether manifest as father, mother, brother, sister, friend, neighbour, colleague, gay, straight, or stranger. Demarcation by gender is, mostly, absent.
#lentbookclub is a loose association of people who broadly fall under the spiritual umbrella of Christianity. During the reflective season of Lent, we are invited to read a specific book, chosen by group consent, and comment about this on social media. The group is open to everyone, those who identify as ‘Christian’ in whatever manner, and those who do not.
For Lent 2021 we are reading The Way of Julian of Norwich by Sheila Upjohn. I am supplementing my reading, by way of contrast, with Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters by Mary-Jane Rubinstein.
Julian What little is known of Julian comes mostly from her own writings. She was an anchoress who lived in the city of Norwich in the fourteenth century. In the spring of 1373 she became seriously ill. During her illness she received a series of ‘shewings’ during which Jesus Christ appeared to her and spoke with her. Having recovered from her illness she chose to live a life of seclusion in a small ‘cell’ adjacent to St Julian’s Church, where she meditated on her experiences and wrote about them. Her book A Revelation of Divine Love is thought to be the first written by a woman in the English language.
Week 1 Contemplation of a God who is with us in our defecation is a great way to start Lent, I think. Especially after all those pancakes. It brings to mind Earnest Becker’s comment about human’s being gods who shit. Here is the appropriate passage (no pun intended, honestly) from Chapter Six of A Revelation of Divine Love.
A man walks upright, and the food in his body is sealed as in a well-made purse. When the time of his necessity comes, it is opened and sealed again most properly. And that it is God who does this is shown where he says that he comes down to the lowest part of our need. For he does not despise what he has made, nor does he disdain to serve our humblest earthly needs. For he loves the soul he has made in his likeness.
Recently, I have been watching the Russell T Davies drama It’s a Sin, set in the gay scene of 1980’s London. It struck me that the scenes where the humanity of the characters shone through most palpably were those in which they or their friends had succumbed to the ravages of AIDS, and were confronted by an inevitable death. Here in the lowest point of their need did they find an outpouring of service, compassion, devotion and love. It also struck me that, regardless of gender and sexual preference, we all share in this aspect of our humanity, coming to terms with the shame of our lowest needs, confronted by an inevitable death. The vision of Julian is that in our greatest need God is not only with us, but loves us.
Lent Book Group can be found at https://www.facebook.com/groups/LentBookClub
It has become something of a Boxing Day tradition to walk from Tegg’s Nose Country Park, through Macclesfield Forest, to visit St Stephen’s Church, also known as the Forest Chapel. Walking through the forest on the day after Christmas Day the traditions of centuries hang heavy in the air as the tamarisk mosses hang from the naked limbs of the trees.
In a quiet corner of the forest, close by the Iron Age earthworks of Toot Hill, crystal clear Peak District water emerges from a spring in the forest floor. Each year at this location someone dresses a small spruce tree with Christmas decorations. A notebook protected in a small plastic container nearby contains comments of passers by and there is a little tin for donations. To whom the donations might go we can only presume as this information is not provided by the mysterious decorator of the tree. I like to think this has some connection with St Stephen’s but the genius loci of the place has more of the votive pagan tradition about it than anything related to the Christian church. I make my offering and descend Charity Lane, leaving the shadows of the forest behind me.
The Forest Chapel stands in a isolated depression among the northern hills of Macclesfield Forest, a stone’s throw from the curiously named Bottom-of-the-Oven.
As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate the chapel was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. In about 1720 Francis Gastrell, Bishop of Chester noted that the church had not been consecrated and so was dedicated in the name of the martyr Saint Stephen.
To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the families who eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands for some five hundred years since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15th Century. The interior is unostentatious, the basic structure being a single rectangular room, the nave and chancel having no discernible division, covered by a simple oak-beamed vaulted ceiling. A simple stone altar set against the east wall is overlooked by a Victorian stained-glass window.
I sit for some time in the peaceful solitude of the chapel. Here too is erected a Christmas tree. In addition to the customary baubles and fairy lights the hand written prayers of visitors hang from the boughs of the tree. I pack away my flask of coffee in my rucksack and head out once again into the forest.
From Standing Stone car park I climb Buxtor’s Hill. A cold damp wind sweeps across Piggford Moor making the ascent of Shutlingsloe arduous. On the crest of the hill I tuck myself into the relative shelter of a fissure in the Chatsworth Gritstone and eat Stollen, thick with marzipan, which I wash down with coffee.
Shutlingsloe is an anchor in my landscape. The little whitewashed summit monument, once of importance to the Ordnance Survey in the measurement and mapping of this anomalistic archipelago of islands we call home, is without doubt the triangulation pillar upon which I have placed my hands more than any other. Here I place my hands once again, now to steady myself against the buffeting wind.
To find shelter I descend once again into the forest, pausing at Nessit Hill to admire the panorama over Trentabank and Ridgegate Reservoirs. By Bottoms Reservoir I pick up the Gritstone Trail and make the arduous ascent to the summit of Tegg’s Nose Quarry. An information board here informs me that the rocks of the quarry date from the Carboniferous geologic period and were laid down in a mighty river delta some three hundred and fifty million years ago. In comparison to this age the quarry men who split these rocks open a hundred years ago seem my contemporaries.
Thoughts and images inspired by the poem The Moon in Lleyn by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregations
of shadows and the sea’s
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of the bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
But a voice sounds
in my ear: Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptised. The parish
has a saint’s name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
This is one of my favourite poems by RST. It speaks to me deeply of my journey in faith, which has been circuitous, and the joy I have found in my solitary exploration of the enigmatic and beguiling country known as Wales.
On the surface, what faith I have in God is founded largely on necessity, rather than any abstract metaphysical concept. It is a belief that has grown and changed over time and is influenced by the traditional teachings of the Anglican Christian Church, some elements of Eastern philosophy and the principles of the Twelve Step Fellowship movement.
At the core of this belief is the need for a guiding, stabilising entity in my life that can be depended upon. It is sustained by an experiential positive feedback loop. The more I rely on this sustaining power the more manageable my life becomes. This need is for a power greater than myself, which I can contemplate in wonder, a power that can and does restore me to sanity.
Self examination of the necessity of faith leads me to an awareness that the foundation of that belief is the sure and certain knowledge of the fallibility of human beings. To put it simply, human beings are not dependable. Whether at a personal or national level, or taking humanity as a whole, they can and will let you down, either as a result of conscious wilfulness, ignorance, stupidity, the manifestation of some mental illness or any combination of these factors. As Eckhart Tolle wrote, “Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species.”
Moreover, as a member of the human race I am more than capable of behaving in this manner. I too will let you down. Sometimes I feel the outlook is bleak. The ‘wise’ ape is doomed to an eternity of delusional craving and obsession. In this dark place it is easy to believe Yeats was right.
The Second Coming by W B Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
At such times I have to put myself in check. “Why so fast, /mortal? These very seas /are baptised.” And often, sitting quietly, alone, by the sea, I have found solace.
Some years ago I was attending a course at the Welsh language college at Nant Gwrytheyrn. Class having concluded for the day I took the opportunity to walk along Morfa Nefyn to Porthdinllaen. Resisting the temptations of cool ale at the Tŷ Coch Inn, I continued along the headland, beyond the Lifeboat Station and sat among the sun-bleached rocks soaking my feet in the crystal blue waters of the Celtic Sea.
My meditation of tranquility was disturbed by loud snorting from the pool before me. With a cloud of spray a young grey seal surfaced no more than twenty feet from where I sat. She fixed me with an inquisitive eye, drifting towards me on the gentle swell of the waves. I held my breath. For a moment all time stood still. Unanticipated, unsolicited, here was a wild creature of God, a fellow mortal. In that moment there was an awareness of each others presence, a shared repose amongst creation.
With a disinterested snort and a swish of her tail she turned about, her limbs working gracefully until she was clear of the little cove, then with a final cloud of spray she slipped beneath the waves.
“These very seas /are baptised” and blessed with gentle spirits. In comparison to such epiphanies the folly of humans becomes a mere inconvenience.
Thoughts and images inspired by the poem Pilgrimages by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches.
The tides in Bardsey Sound/Swnt Enlli are notorious. Between Pen y Cil and the island of Bardsey, known as Ynys Enlli in Welsh, the seabed rises up. In places it breaches the water’s surface to form clusters of treacherous reefs, such as the black rocks of Carreg Ddu. During the tidal flood, water is forced through the sound, up and over the elevated seabed, so that the surface of the sea is higher to the east than to the west. In order to maintain equilibrium the water rushes through the sound, reaching speeds of up to eight knots and creating standing waves that can be several feet in height. Being caught up in this maelstrom in a small sixth century wooden boat would have been terrifying, no doubt. Thus Porth Neigwl became known in English as Hell’s Mouth.
As Vicar of St Hywyn’s Church, Aberdaron, this was a landscape, a seascape with which RST was very familiar, within which he saw the legacy of the twenty thousand saints who journeyed to Ynys Enlli and did not return. In the company of these saints RST undoubtedly saw himself as a twentieth century pilgrim making his journey across the post-Freudian seascape of the psyche, wherein he sought God. “Was the pilgrimage/ I made to come to my own/ self.” The narration of this journey in his poems defines RST as a twentieth century modernist, in the intertextual company of poets such as T S Eliot, W H Auden and Dylan Thomas.
Although the poems of RST can sometimes seem dark and impenetrable, there is often a subtle wit to his choice of language. As Carys Walsh points out in her book Frequencies of God, the phrase “munching the gravel/of its beaches” from Pilgrimages is likely a reference to the book of Lamentations.
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
But RST is also, no doubt with a cheeky wink, making reference to the following passage from Under Milk Wood written by his long-dead contemporary Dylan Thomas.
never such seas as any that swamped the decks of his S.S.
Kidwelly bellying over the bedclothes and jellyfish-slippery
sucking him down salt deep into the Davy dark where the fish
come biting out and nibble him down to his wishbone, and
the long drowned nuzzle up to him.
We have already seen reference to the imagery of this passage in the poem This to do. Imagery and themes are cyclical in RST’s poetry, as no doubt he experienced them in his exploration of God. In the second stanza of Pilgrimages RST contemplates again the idea of the timeless moment.
There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock; the events
This imagery once again calls to mind T S Eliot’s “history is a pattern of timeless moments.”
We know for sure that RST was familiar with Eliot’s works as he made reference to them in his personal letters.
RST lived in the company of all the saints, and the poets, and saw himself as a fellow pilgrim in the journey towards God. What I see in the cyclical imagery of his poems is a growing awareness that the origin of the pilgrim’s journey is God and the destination is God.
This phrase from Little Gidding is now quoted so often it has become a cliché, but for sake of completion, I quote it again.
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.
Out of necessity life involves a physical journey. Undoubtedly, there are places we encounter along the way, suspended in place and time, such as Ynys Enlli, that are portals to an inner journey. But it is through this inner journey that we are ultimately reconciled to God.
Thoughts inspired by the poem The Moor by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In the movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said, But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
Over the past fifteen years I’ve spent a fair bit of time walking across moorland, sometimes with fellow walkers, more often than not on my own.
In contrast to the craggy, ice scarred mountains and cwmoedd that define the drama of Snowdonia, open moorland is the predominant landscape of the gritstone uplands of the Pennine hills. The spine of Old England, as they were once known. It is a landscape with which I have become reacquainted as a result of recent travel restrictions, and the increasing restrictions of my ageing body. It is a landscape scarred not by ice but by the slash and burn practices of humans in their quest for the mineral wealth of the earth and their blood lust for the tragic little bird known as the grouse. There are no trees here where the watershed divides the ancient counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire as bloodshed once did. Nothing higher than the hearts of the sheep, as Sylvia Plath noted, where the wind pours by like destiny.
There is something about open moorland that is conducive to communion with a consciousness that is both within and beyond ourselves. Perhaps it is the absence of form and colour. There are fewer distractions here for the conscious mind to latch onto. In bad weather, with visibility lost, wind and rain being the soul determinants of direction, the moor can take on the aspect of an isolation tank. Separating me from all the anchors I have attached to my fears.
This is the mind’s cession that RST speaks of. The ego letting go of it’s kingdom. It’s just me, simple and poor, and rude weather. Oh, how I yearn for that simplicity.
Thoughts inspired by the poem Suddenly by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub
It’s a bright Sunday morning in late November and I drive up to Alderley Edge for a walk in the woods. I arrive at the little car park near Findlow Farm to find it already full. There’s no point in driving up to The Wizard. It will only be the same. Sunshine always brings out the families with their SUV’s, matching Hunter wellies and cross-breed dogs.
I decide to make a try for the Bollin Valley, fully expecting things to be even busier there. And sure enough, as I come around the bend in front of St Bartholomew’s Church, I see vehicles queuing to access the car park. Nothing for it but to cut my losses and head for home.
And then I remember Quarry Bank Mill. The car park there has room for hundreds of cars. The mill will be closed, of course. Isn’t everything? But I can a slip past the turnstiles then head down to the old mill race and walk along the river back towards Wilmslow.
I’ve never seen so many people, but I’m not alarmed. I’m wearing a Buff, which I can discreetly pull up over my mouth and nose if they choose to come too close. And I have my new noise-cancelling headphones with me so I can block out the chatter. I’ve decided to go festive early. I’m listening to the Tori Amos Christmas album, Midwinter Graces.
This is okay, I think to myself. I’d rather be up in the Peak District somewhere but the lockdown restrictions do not permit travel outside our own area. I don’t mind. I can walk to the Carrs, grab a coffee, walk back. That will be at least ten thousand steps.
I find myself standing beneath a sycamore tree, beside the river, watching the people pass by, and a verse from the bible springs to mind. “The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light.” That’s appropriate, I think. We’re all in darkness at the moment, even though the sun is shining. And then the words just start to come. The families are walking their dogs, the children are playing by the river, the elderly couple are holding hands, and I’m typing furiously with one finger on my phone.
By the time I reach Worms Hill I have the bones of the poem. Tori is singing about Jeanette & Isabella. They are bringing their torches to the nativity. Suddenly, emotions surge from within. Tears are streaming down my face. Heat floods my body. I see not with my eyes but with the whole of my being. There is Joy, Joy, Joy!
When such moments have passed I look back and wonder whether the surge of overwhelming emotion was some manifestation of an undiagnosed mental illness. The ecstatic phase of bipolar disorder, perhaps. But really, who cares? It’s only illness if it’s problematic. I cherish these experiences. They are mine. They serve a purpose. A message is transmitted and received. I am forgiven. I am loved. I am redeemed. And no-one and nothing can take that away from me.
For some years now I have participated in an Advent Book Group located on social media. I have, in the past, found it helpful to reflect upon the meaning of the Christian season of Advent, as a way to reflect upon the year gone by and a time to review the path ones own life has taken. Advent is so often overshadowed by the commercial celebrations of Christmas, which now begin immediately following the American festival of Thanksgiving at the end of November. As far as the Church is concerned, officially, the season of Christmas does not begin until midnight on Christmas Eve, but as we all know, our culture’s aversion to delayed gratification means Christmas starts when multi-national corporations say it starts.
And so I see my participation in the little online book group as a form of rebellion against the leviathan of corporate capitalism. That said, I have just put up my Christmas tree on 1 December. Something which would have been unthinkable when I was a child.
This year the group is reading Frequencies of God by Carys Walsh, a collection of reflections on the work of the Welsh poet R S Thomas.
The poem for Week 1, Day 3 is In Church.
Often I try To analyse the quality Of its silence. Is this where God hides From my searching? I have stopped to listen, After the few people have gone, To the air recomposing itself For vigil. It has waited like this Since the the stones grouped themselves about it. These are the hard ribs Of a body that our prayers have failed To animate. Shadows advance From their corners to take possession Of places the light held For an hour. The bats resume Their business. The uneasiness of the pews Ceases. There is no other sound In the darkness but the sound of a man Breathing, testing his faith On emptiness, nailing his questions One by one to an untenanted cross.
Here we have some powerful imagery from R S Thomas. Imagery with which I am familiar. There have been many times I have sat, alone, in country churches as the darkness thickens around me.
It’s a bit of a Boxing Day tradition for me to walk from Tegg’s Nose, through Macclesfield Forest, up to St Stephen’s Church, also known as the Forest Chapel. By the time I have walked through the forest to the church it is often early afternoon, but at that time of year the darkness has already mustered on over the Pennine Hills to the west.
The following is from an article I wrote for the Great Outdoors magazine.
To the north I took refuge from the inclement weather inside one of the jewels of the western Peak District. As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate, the Forest Chapel, or Saint Stephen’s Church as it was consecrated, was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the generations who have eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15th Century.
I sat for some time as rainwater from the stone-clad roof collected in the lead guttering and splish-splashed onto the paving outside, until ultimately the light in the chapel brightened and brief shafts of sunlight, at acute angles from the south transept windows, blessed the silent nave, and the rain stopped, like the silence that follows the prayers of four hundred years.
A similar experience too place some years earlier in The Kirk of Saint Ternan, Arbuthnott, Laurencekirk. I had been walking in snow and ice the day before on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms; had fallen and twisted my knee quiet badly. Deciding to assign the next day to low-impact activities I paid a visit to the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre.
For those unfamiliar with LGG, he wrote Sunset Song, a novel set in the early twentieth century about the loss of tradition agricultural practice in rural Scotland. It is a short walk from the visitors centre to the kirkyard of St Ternan’s, where LGG is buried. At that latitude during the liminal week betwixt Christmas and New Year’s Eve the light begins to fade not long after lunch. Not a soul in sight I took refuge in the church and sat for sometime contemplating the wreckage of my life and the pain searing through my knee. Nailing my questions one by one to an untenanted cross.
“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls, and she is for the hunting.” Alan Garner, The Owl Service
Lleu Llaw Gyffes stood upon the rocky outcrop shot through with obdurate, milk white quartz, high above the cascading waters of Afon Cynfal and raised high above his head his fire-forged spear. With every sinew, every muscle and tendon in his body taught with indignant rage, he aimed his lance at the heart of Gronw Pebyr, lover of his wife, usurper of his crown and author of his downfall.
Such is the culmination of a folk tale that over centuries has woven itself into the consciousness of the Welsh nation and the fabric of a landscape. The evocative story of the love triangle between the heroic but gullible Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the devious Gronw Pebyr and the beautiful flower maiden Blodeuedd, manifested into existence by the magician Math son of Mathonwy, is part of a narrative with origins believed to date back to the post-Roman period of British history but which has become known as the Mabinogion, a collection of medieval folk tales of the Welsh corpus, translated into English and popularised in the early 19th Century by Lady Charlotte Guest. The tale of the entanglement of the three lovers is unique amongst the collection in that many of the geographical locations of the story can be identified in the landscape of Snowdonia and in particular the secluded valley of Cwm Cynfal which lies some miles to the south of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd.
At the edge of the forest there were scenes of devastation wrought by the winter storms. Over a dozen large Sitka Spruce lying vanquished across the saturated forest track. With a little persistence I was able to clamber across the fallen timber and make my way over the river by means of a small footbridge. Further along the valley, in the centre of a long narrow farm track, I came upon what at first I thought was a sleeping cat, but which upon closer inspection I found to be a young lamb, cold and curled up upon itself; dead, I assumed, abandoned by its mother. I felt I couldn’t leave it where it was to be squashed by the next Mitsubishi to come blistering down the track, so I resolved to move the cadaver into the thicket and let the carrion crows do the rest. As I touched it, the little thing revived, its eyes thick with mucus, its head lolling like a rudely awoken drunk, reeking of the sour stench of death – if not already off his mortal coil, this little one was not far from it. I checked my map and saw there was a farmhouse not a mile further along the track and so despite the mucus oozing from every orifice and the smell stronger than a hikers sock, I took up the lamb in my arms and set off towards the farm.
Fferm Cwm, 1497 read the sign. A simple but beautiful oak-beamed ‘A-’framed building with a low oak door and an elaborate iron knocker which I raised and let fall loudly. There was no answer. I knocked again, fully expecting a gruff, septuagenarian, hard-minded, Welsh speaking hill farmer with little time for sentimental Englishmen and half-dead lambs, to answer the door. Instead it was opened by a fashionably dress young woman, hair held up with a decorative broad headband, wearing a designer sweater, bright purple leggings and “Ugg” boots. I assumed a holiday let. “Hi”, I said, feeling rather foolish now standing at the door covered in mud and sheep mucus holding a half-dead lamb. I asked if the sheep were her responsibility. She answered in the affirmative, sounding a little vexed, and invited me in.
The lady led me through to a lounge, which took up most of the ground floor of the building. The walls were paneled with wood, bamboo matting covered the stone floor and thick oak beams held aloft the ceiling. But for the large flat-screen television in the corner of the room showing an omnibus of Hollyoaks, I might have thought I had walked into a medieval hall. Already by the fireplace lay another invalid lamb, feeding on freshly cut grass. The lady of the house took my lamb and placed a plastic cover over him and fed a feeding tube into his gullet so as to administer a glucose solution. He was then treated to a gentle warming from a small hairdryer and placed in front of the fire with the other lamb for company and the afore mentioned television for entertainment.
The lady of the house I discovered was Bronwen, whose father had owned the farm for over forty years but who had sadly died some months earlier. He had been a professor of art at Bangor University and Bronwen had grown up at Fferm Cwm but had moved away to Liverpool in later life. Following the death of her father she inherited the farm and the two hundred sheep that came with it. Initial plans to sell the farm were complicated when the two hundred sheep came into lamb during the spring and something had to be done so she and a couple of friends upped sticks from Liverpool and took up residence as temporary shepherds in Cwm Cynfal.
Conscious of my boots dripping mud onto Bronwen’s bamboo matting and happy that my little rescued lamb was in the care of someone who was actually capable of restoring him to life, I made my excuses and carried on my way eastwards to the cascades at the head of the valley.
Gronw Pebyr, Lord of Penllyn was hunting in the forest of Hafod Fawr when late in the evening he came upon Mur Castell, the court of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who was absent at the time at the court of the magician Math son of Mathonwy, having left his wife Blodeuedd in charge of affairs. Concerned that her husband would be unpleased if hospitality was not offered to the lord, Blodeuedd invited Gronw and his entourage to stay the night at the castle. However, as soon as Gronw entered the castle and his gaze fell upon that of Blodeuedd, were they both filled with the deepest love for each other and sought that very night to consummate that love in each other’s embrace. Rather than take leave from his host the following day, Gronw sought to stay a further night in his lovers arms and together they conspired how they might rid themselves of Lleu Llaw Gyffes.
Some days later Gronw departed and the lord of the house returned. That night Blodeuedd feigned concern for her husband’s life. Lleu replied that she had little to fear for by virtue of his birth, his mother being the sorceress Aranrhod, daughter of Dôn, it was all but impossible to slay him. Blodeuedd pleaded with Lleu to tell her that way in which his death might come about, so as she may always ensure that such circumstances should never occur. Foolishly, Lleu agreed. Firstly, he told her, any spear able to strike the mortal blow would have to be forged only when people were at Mass on the Sabbath and be a year in the making. Further, a bath of stone would need to be made on the riverbank and that with a thatched roof and by bringing a Billy goat along side the stone bath so as Lleu would place one foot on the edge of the bath and one foot on the back of the goat. Only then could the mortal blow be made. Blodeuedd laughed nervously, for she knew such circumstances were never to occur by chance. None-the-less she sent word to Gronw Pebyr who immediately set about making a spear in his forge.
A year later Blodeuedd entreated her husband to again regale the details of how his mortality may come about and to demonstrate the same. In order to please her he agreed and so she prepared a stone bath with a thatched roof on the banks of the river Cynfal and gathered as many Billy goats as she could find in the valley and sent word to Gronw Pebyr to make himself ready under the lee of the hill known as Bryn Cyfergyr which overlooks the river. Then Blodeuedd asked her husband to show her the position in which his mortality may be taken by placing one foot on the edge of the stone bath and one foot on the back of one of the Billy goats, and again, foolishly, to please her, he agreed. No sooner did he do so Gronw Pebyr rose up from behind Bryn Cyfergyr and threw the year-forged spear at Lleu Llaw Gyffes such that it struck him in the side, whereafter Lleu leaped into the air in the form of an eagle issuing an ear piercing scream, flying away into the mountains of Eryri.
Beyond the meadow to the east of Fferm Cwm the ground rises steeply to a spur with a natural viewpoint above and the Afon Cynfal tumbles over a series of cascades culminating in the dramatic Rhaeadr y Cwm with a drop of thirty-seven metres over Ordovician shale and sandstone turbidites. Above the cascades the landscape broadens out into open moorland, much of which is above five hundred metres in height. There is a lot of open space up here on the edge of Yr Migneint, an expanse of blanket bog of over two hundred square kilometres, the most extensive in Wales. Sadly, the remoteness of this landscape has encouraged its exploitation for the management of utilities. A line of electrical grid pylons now transect the forest plantations of Hafod Fawr, strung together like enslaved giants, striding westwards to the controversial (it being located in the national park) and since 1991 decommissioned nuclear power station of Trawsfynydd, the presence of all of which somewhat detracts from the sense of wilderness. As I wandered south from Pont yr Afon Gam towards the forest I was struck, as I often am in such places, by the emptiness of the terrain. As I climbed up onto the undifferentiated summit of Pen y Foel-ddû the sense of isolation just grew and grew.
The Ramblers Association have for some time expressed concerned that since the passing of the CROW Act in 2000 the use of open access land has not been embraced by those who engage in outdoor activities as perhaps was expected. This may be due to several reasons, not limited to a lack of confidence in navigation skills, over-dependence on GPS units, guide books which still slavishly stick to established rights-of-way and perhaps more than any other, the fear of getting lost. In her book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”, Rebecca Solnit laments the disappearance from our maps and atlases of the term ‘Terra Incognita’. With our reliance on technology, we in the 21st Century often rest under the assumption that no region of the globe, no square kilometre of our planet, remains unknown, for everything is photographed and mapped by satellites, charted and measured by global-positioning systems. Something the tragic disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 must remind us all is that this protective veil of technology is not infallible.
Solnit argues that any map only provides a restricted view of a particular landscape, limited by the information left out: the unmapped and unmappable. We may look at the Ordnance Survey map of the Vale of Ffestiniog, look at the ochre contour coils against the pale yellow patches between reference squares 7138 and 7642 and notice the lack of little black or green dotted lines there, but unless we take our compass in hand and step out into those contours, to all intents and purposes they remain ‘Terra Incognita’, their story forever silent.
Nineteen hundred years ago this moorland may have bore more trees, but perhaps this broad, open landscape and sense of isolation was what drew the Roman Legions to use the area for training camps. Where the Afon Llafar tumbles down from the twin lakes of Llyn Conglog-mawr and Conglog-bach are remains of many Roman practice works. It was common, when moving large numbers of troops across hostile territory, to build fortifications overnight and raw recruits had to be trained how to do this efficiently. Here too, passing Dolbelydr, Sarn Helen, the main Roman artery through occupied Welsh territory, climbs towards the Roman complex at Castell Tomen-y-mur, in its time the most extensive Roman complex in Wales comprising a military tertiata fort of over four acres, a stone built principa, annexe buildings and even a small amphitheatre for troop entertainment. When the Roman legions withdrew from Britain, the territory left behind fell into the hands of tribesmen and warlords. The presence of a Norman motte here indicates that the site was variously occupied until around the early twelfth century and the ruins of a hafod, a small farm dwelling, indicate that the site was occupied for agricultural rather than military purposes well into the nineteenth century. But today the once centre of Roman provincial power, Mur Castell, the court of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, as imagined in the Mabinogion, is occupied only by sheep who ruminate on the abundant thistles.
And so Gronw Pebyr wasted no time. He returned victorious to Mur Castell and with Blodeuedd by his side took possession of the lands of Ardudwy, which once were the province of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. When Gwydion, Lleu’s uncle heard of his fate he was greatly distressed and set off to search for his wounded nephew. Through all the country of Gwynedd and Powys he searched until he came to a valley where he saw a sow feeding on rotting flesh and maggots beneath a great oak tree. When Gwydion looked up into the tree he saw a wounded eagle resting in the upper branches and every time the eagle shook itself, the rotten flesh and maggots would fall from his wound and so the sow ate them. And so by means of singing an enchanted song to the bird, Gwydion was able to entice it down from the tree whereupon he struck it with his magic wand and Lleu Llaw Gyffes was restored to his former shape, yet gravely ill.
After many months recuperation Lleu Llaw Gyffes mustered an army and set out to Ardudwy determined to reclaim his lands. Upon hearing of his coming Gronw Pebyr and Blodeuedd fled, Gronw to Penllyn and Blodeuedd into the mountains with her maidens, who, being so filled with fear would only walk backwards and so fell into a deep pool and were drowned, that lake now bearing the name Llyn Morwynion, the lake of the maidens. As for Blodeuedd, when Lleu finally caught up with here he intended to kill her for her betrayal, but was none-the-less filled with love for her and instead transformed her into the shape of an owl, a bird so cursed that she may only hunt at night and towards which all the other birds were filled with enmity. And her name was henceforth known as Blodeweudd, Flower-face.
Gronw Pebyr appealed to Lleu Llaw Gyffes for clemency in exchange for silver and gold, but Lleu would have none of it and instead requested that Gronw meet him by the cascades upon the river Cynfal and receive from him the same blow that Gronw had unleashed upon Lleu. Gronw reluctantly agreed, and so they both came to the banks of the river and Gronw stood by the stone bath on the banks and Lleu Llaw Gyffes took up position under Bryn Cyfergyr and aimed his spear at the heart of Gronw Pebyr. Wait! shouted Gronw, pleading with Lleu for clemency, that as he had not acted alone in his deceit he be allowed to place a stone, which he saw by the river bank, between himself and the spear. Lleu Llaw Gyffes agreed and so Gronw Pebyr held the stone before his chest and Lleu Llaw Gyffes threw his spear with all of his strength and the spear pierced the stone and Gronw’s chest and broke his back and he fell to the ground dead.
And should you care to, you may wish to visit, on an overcast, rainy afternoon, an innocuous, rather muddy field, populated by indifferent sheep, above a farm known as Bryn-saeth, the hill of the arrows, and find under the dripping hawthorn Llech Gronw, the stone of Gronw Pebyr, with a hole right through the middle of it made by the spear of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. And as you walk from the stone, as the light beings to fade and the gloaming gathers amid the oak trees of Cwm Cynfal, you may hear the cry of an owl as she mounts her nightly hunt.
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Great Outdoors Magazine