Nant Gwrtheyrn and the Englishman who wanted to learn Welsh

The first time I came to Nant Gwrtheyrn I came at night like a broken king.  It was late October. I had been walking in Cwm Croesor to the east of Aberglaslyn, exploring the abandoned quarries of Rhosydd and, being underground, had lost track of time. By the time I reached Croesor the light was quickly receding. I recovered my car and drove westwards as the evening spread it raven wings over the sky.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and with my car poised above the steep, switchback, single-track road that descended into the dark heart of Nant Gwrtheyrn, the thermometer on my dashboard threatening to dip below zero, I cursed my tardiness, wishing for just a few moments of the incandescence that not an hour ago had graced the heavens. Gingerly I threaded the car down the steep track, winding through the dense evergreens until the outline of the quarrymen’s cottages appeared in the glare of my headlights. I killed the engine and was immediately plunged into darkness. I fumbled around in my rucksack for my head torch. 

Nant Gwrtheryn

Upon trying the door of the language centre office I found it to be locked, as was the café, the chapel and the bookshop. At just after five thirty on a Thursday evening in late October the ‘ghost’ village of Porth-y-Nant was, not for the first time in its history, utterly deserted. Again I cursed my poor timekeeping. I had told the office staff that I would arrive by four o’clock. I now had the prospect of nowhere to sleep that night. As I considered a drive back to the Victoria Dock in Caernarfon, I noticed, from the corner of my eye, a single light in the window of one of the cottages at the far end of the terrace. I tried the door of the tiny cottage named Arfon and found it unlocked. Inside, on a table by the window, beneath the bedside reading light, a small handwritten note proclaimed “Hello Mr Galloway, Croeso i Nant.” I was touched by the thoughtfulness. The door key had been left on the table beside the note. For one cold dark autumn night too close to Hallowe’en for comfort, I was alone in possibly the most isolated village in Britain. 

On my most recent visit to Nant Gwrtheyrn I came at midsummer, arriving before four o’clock in the afternoon, the brilliant sun still high in the sky above a silver Caernarfon Bay as I took Bara Brith and Earl Grey at Caffi Meinir. Now better know as a dramatic location for weddings, the original vision behind the restoration of Nant Gwrtheyrn, as imagined by Dr Carl Clowes in 1978, was to create a centre to promote the heritage and learning of the Welsh Language. With the assistance of the local authority of Cyngor Dwyfor, the charitable trust Ymddiriedolaeth Nant Gwrtheyrn was able to purchase the village from ARC Aggregates and basic restoration under the management of the Manpower Services Commission began. The first Welsh course was held ‘yn y Nant’ at Easter 1982, albeit with very limited resources, the village as then not being connected to the mains electricity grid. Restoration work continued and by 1990 all of the original quarrymen’s cottages had been restored to provide comfortable accommodation for guests. The former quarry manager’s house, known as Y Plas, became the focal point for learning. By 2008 over twenty-five thousand people from twenty-seven different countries had visited ‘y Nant’ specifically to learn Welsh. 

However, despite the success of Ymddiriedolaeth Nant Gwrtheyrn in achieving its core objectives of promoting the Welsh language and creating employment for the local area, the future of the Welsh language is still far from secure. Census figures indicate that although there has in the past thirty years been a small increase in the number of people identifying Welsh as their first language, as a percentage of the total population of the country the figure has marginally fallen, mainly as a function of migration into Wales from England and from the wider European community. Figures from 2011 show that of a population of just over three million people approximately five hundred and sixty-thousand speak Welsh on a regular basis, approximately 20% of the total population. The age group with the highest density of fluent Welsh speakers is the over 65’s.

For many the promotion of the Welsh language is seen as a matter of survival. However, to the vast majority of people living to the east of Offa’s Dyke, the matter is not one of urgency. We live in an age of saturation media where the dominant language is English and, let’s face it, the dominance of the English speaking North American market is only likely to consolidate the worldwide dominance of this language globally. By comparison, the survival of the Welsh language is, as it always has been, very much an up hill struggle. As a former girlfriend, a language graduate from Oxford, used to tell me, the difference between a language and a dialect is that a language has an army and a navy. Perhaps today that army and navy has been superseded by corporate dominance of the Internet. 

Distribution of Welsh speakers, UK Census 2011

And what of it? What would we lose if Welsh were to decline into oblivion, as have many other minority European languages? In order to answer that question we need to understand something of the origin of Welsh. Welsh evolved some time in the early sixth century AD from Common Brittonic, the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Celtic Britons. The Brittonic language probably arrived in Britain during the Bronze Age and was most likely spoken throughout the islands south of the Firth of Forth, to the north of which Pictish remained the dominant tongue. English on the other hand is a Germanic language closely related to Frisian, which was most likely brought to the British Isles by one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to Britain during the sixth century AD and ultimately derives its name from the Anglia (Angeln) peninsula in the Baltic Sea. Welsh then has the greater claim to be in direct lineage to what might be described as an indigenous language of the British Isles, although in reality the precursors of what we know today as modern Welsh and English were both brought to the archipelago by immigrants. So much for the pompous bigotry of certain nationalistic political organisations currently extant in British culture. An adequate public education system would do much to banish their xenophobic nonsense forever but such educational investment is unlikely to be forthcoming from establishment ideologies that favour private education and place restrictions upon state education funding and who themselves obtain political benefit from social division and a mind-set of blind nationalism within the population. 

Laying the politics of language aside, the question I am most often asked when I inform people that I am learning to speak Welsh is ‘Why are you learning to speak Welsh?’ Although I often feel aggrieved that I might not be asked a similar question were I to inform said people that I was learning to speak French, Spanish or Mandarin, although given the traditional aversion amongst the English to learning any foreign language there is a fair chance that I would, it is in fact an appropriate question to ask. Appropriate enough for it to be included on the course registration form for prospective students at Nant Gwrtheyrn. However, as a visiting ‘Saes’, of the available options on the form I had to look pretty far down the list to find an appropriate choice. The available options included:

  • Because I moved to Wales
  • For work purposes
  • Regain the language
  • National pride
  • Child in Welsh medium school
  • Partner
  • Wish to learn more about Wales and her culture

This left me feeling like a bit of an oddball: a Welsh learner who is not Welsh, who does not live in Wales, who is not in a relationship with a Welsh person, who does not have children attending a Welsh medium school, and does not require Welsh for work. Let me tell you though, I am not on my own. Attending the same course were two ladies from the United States, both as it happens coming from New Mexico although ironically never having met before their trip to Wales. I identified greatly with their desire to learn more about their Celtic heritage and to find something of interest counter to the stream of banal mainstream consumerist culture to which we are subjected daily. 

Reasons for wanting to learn Welsh

For me however, there are other reasons not provided on the administrator’s list, which during my most recent stay at Nant Gwrtheyrn I pondered for some time. What exactly is it that I am searching for in this strange, alluring, beautiful if sometimes hostile – both in climate and culture – country located less than forty miles to the west of the place where I was born? 

Welsh Learners

In his book History on our Side, a memoir of the 1984-1985 miner’s strike in Wales, Hywel Francis speaks of a collectivism and sense of community throughout the South Wales Valleys, the spirit of which saw those communities through months of what could only be described as state persecution. It was of course this collectivism and sense of community that Thatcher set out to crush in the 1980’s. The miners’ strike had little if anything to do with uneconomic pits. 

Set against the harsh reality of post-Imperialist, post-Thatcherite, post-Brexit Britain it is perhaps easy for me to view Wales through rose tinted glasses,  to make of it a type of Shangri-la for a dispossessed idealist. None-the-less I still see something of that sense of collectivism and community in parts of Wales, the enterprising ventures of Carl Clowes at Nant Gwrtheyrn being a case in point. It is a culture that for me stands out against the vacuity of the post-imperialist individualism propagated by corporate Britain and its establishment benefactors. In truth this individualism is nothing more than the denigration of individuals into units of consumption, who more often than not render themselves addled by cheap alcohol and bloated by junk food. I see that we have now reached a point where neo-capitalist ideology, neo-liberalism, Thatcherism, call it what you will, is so engrained in the consciousness of the British people that nothing is seen to have value unless it creates wealth. In this respect learning Welsh will always be seen as a fancy, an addition to a wish list subject to available funds (always, of course, in limited supply). 

Nant Gwrtheryn

It would be easy for me to wax lyrical about my relationship with this curious nation, especially as I have for much of my life chosen to remain in England to take advantage of the economic security of life there. None-the-less, the history, culture, people, places and yes, the language of Wales have figured large in my past, continue to do so in my present, and, God willing, will do so for many years to come. 

Taking a Stand

Broad Stand, as the notorious flight of granite steps on the eastern flank of Scafell is known, is a death trap. A quick look at the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team website will confirm the number of incidents that have taken place at this accident black spot. These range in seriousness from a family of four and their dog who had become stuck on the ledge half way up the crag, to a fell walker found dead beneath East Buttress on 2 July 2017. 

Not recorded on the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team website is the descent of Broad Stand made by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge on 5 August 1802. Coleridge set out from Greta Hall, his home in Keswick, carrying little more than a change of under garments and some simple writing materials, bound up in a “natty green oil-skin” held together in a net knapsack. Through the Newlands Valley he climbed by the waterfall of Moss Force, then descended into Buttermere and took tea at the Inn by the lake. From Floutern Tarn he descended into Ennerdale and spent the night at the home of John Ponsonby at Long Moor. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1802

Coleridge departed Long Moor after tea and arrived late at St. Bees. He was unable to find suitable accommodation and was forced to spend the night in his clothes at a “miserable pot-house”. He lingered at St. Bees a day then walked on to Egremont, from where via Gosforth he followed the River Irk upstream to reach Nether Wasdale.

Having spent the night at Wasdale Head, Coleridge climbed in the fresh morning light to Burnmoor Tarn, then followed the torrent of Hardrigg Gill to the rocky summit of Scafell itself, where on a natural table of granite he took from his knapsack the paper and pens he had placed there upon leaving Greta Hall and began to compose the letter to his friend Sara Hutchinson from which the details of this account come.

Symonds Knott, Scafell

By three o’clock in the afternoon the wind had begun to gather around the summit such that Coleridge sought his descent from the mountain. He found himself at the narrow gap between what contemporary climbers know as Eastern Buttress and Scafell Crag. It was here that he began to experience difficulties.  He lowered himself down a flight of three granite steps to a narrow ledge. Finding himself unable to continue further down the crag he attempted to retreat the way he had come. To his dismay he found the ledges out of reach and became crag-fast.

Lying on the narrow ledge Coleridge describes entering into a “prophetic trance” (possibly induced by a gram of laudanum) during which he became emboldened by the “powers of Reason and Will”. It was then that he noticed a narrow gap in the rock below him, through which with some difficulty, he was able to pass and thus avoid injury. This gap is known to climbers and hikers alike as “fat man’s agony” and confirms the identity of Coleridge’s descent as Broad Stand.  

Inspired by Coleridge’s heroic if slightly foolish adventure, I determined to experience for myself the perils of Broad Stand. Considering discretion to be the better part of valour, and not wishing to become a statistic on the Wasdale MRT website, I decided to employ some professional assistance in the form of a qualified mountain guide. 

My rendezvous with Matt le Voi was at the Lake Head National Trust car park early on one of those bright, otherworldly Indian Summer mornings that somehow materialise out of the North Atlantic, surprising the human inhabitants of Cumbria as much as the flora and fauna. Along the well-worn path beside Lingmell Gill, Matt and I strode under the September sun, turning now and again to see how it sparkled off the shimmering length of Wastwater, filling the view behind us as we climbed. 

Matt le Voi above Wastwater

At the approach of Mickledore, Matt suggested we climb the steep scree at the foot of Southern Buttress. Here, carved into the fine-grained andesite of the crag, one can discern the shape of a cross beside which are carved four sets of initials and a date, 21 September 1903. The cross marks the location where four young pioneers of climbing fell to their deaths from the lofty precipice of Scafell Pinnacle above. The names of the four young men killed that day are R W Broadrick, H L Jupp, S Ridsdale and A E W Garrett, all members of the Climbers’ Club, which had been newly founded is 1898. They had been attempting to repeat the ascent of Scafell Pinnacle, which had been first made by Welsh rock pioneer, Owen Glynne Jones some years earlier. 

Climbers’ Club Memorial, Mickledore

As the late summer sun crept behind the mountain above us, I felt a chill come upon me, the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention. Here in the highest ‘Corrie’ in England, bounded on three sides by immense towers of rock, stories of tragedy and death gather like the hooded crows that sweep down from the rocky heights. 

Just before the outbreak of the First World War, Siegfried Herford, a mathematics graduate of Manchester University, ably assisted by George Sanson, a zoology graduate from University College London, made the first ascent of Central Buttress on Scafell Crag. The crux of the climb was a flake crack, which Herford was able to surmount by standing on the shoulders of Sansom, acceptable practice in those days, precariously held in place by a rope threaded around a chockstone near to the top of the flake.

Siegfried Herford was killed by a rifle grenade in France on the 28 January 1916. Stories of sightings of Herford’s ghost, lingering around the base of Central Buttress, began to circulate among the climbing community thereafter. The mountaineer and author Bill Birkett describes how, in the early 1980’s he was descending from Scafell Pike on a bitter, snow shrouded November day, when, approaching the col of Mickledore he noticed walking towards him from out of the swirling mist, the figure of a young man dressed in Khaki drill. Birkett thought nothing of it until he noticed the man was wearing puttees above his boots, a fashion more readily associated with the British Army of the early 20th Century than the 1980’s. Some years later the notorious chockstone that had held Herford and Sansom in place on Central Buttress, became dislodged and fell, killing the climber Iain George Newman. 


Broad Stand was for once dry. There were no excuses. Aware of the many accidents in this spot we set up a belay from the narrow crack in the seemingly impenetrable defences of Fat Man’s Agony. I watched as Matt disappeared through the narrow gap and found myself alone, the only sounds the clink of karabiners and the down draft of ravens wings. Time ticked away slowly and I began to feel a cramp in my calf, shifting my weight from one leg to the other whilst still maintaining the belay position against the cold grey rock, my knuckles whitening around the umbilical chord of rope threaded through the crevice in the rock. It was a good ten minutes more before I heard Matt’s voice calling down from somewhere above me, informing me that he was safe and I could begin to climb. 

Being of slight stature, I was able to squeeze through the vice like fissure in the wall without too much hindrance.  I popped out onto the first rock step where with ease I was able to follow the line of Matt’s rope to the left via a series of outward sloping ledges onto the second rock step. Here, my heart surged into my mouth and sweat began to collect on the nape of my neck. With Broad Stand you see, the structure is all wrong – or right – depending on your viewpoint. What first appears to be a series of relatively benign rock steps leading to higher, more manageable ground, takes on an altogether more alarming prospect because of the angle of fracture of the rock, dipping at about thirty degrees to the South.  This means that the whole structure leans outwards towards the precipice of the Eastern Buttress, making Broad Stand a bit like the House of Fun at an amusement park, but without the laughs. 

It was going to be a leap of faith. I shouted for tight rope and pushed out with all my strength, grappling for the finger hold and finding it securely. “Get a grip!” shouted Matt, and I hauled myself up onto the next ledge, eventually finding my feet on the coarse forgiving granite. I crouched there for some time, regaining my composure and allowing the tide of adrenaline now coursing through my circulatory system to subside, looking down into the heart-stopping drop below.

Myself and Matt on Symonds Knott, Scafell

At the summit of Symonds Knott, lazing under a resplendent blue sky, Matt and I ate a celebratory lunch of cheese sandwiches and chocolate washed down with instant coffee before walking to the cairn marking the summit of Scafell. Turning to the West the early afternoon sun shimmered on the surface of Wastwater as we descended the long, grassy slope of Green How, arriving triumphantly at the National Trust car park, where I thanked Matt for his assistance and waved him goodbye. 

Having time to spare I wandered around the head of the lake to Overbeck Bridge where a small shingle beach extended a little way into the lake. There being no one around I slipped out of my walking clothes and into the cold, heart-stopping waters, seeing beneath me the rounded cobbles give way to the bottomless blue of England’s deepest lake. I floated on my back for some time, soaking my heat-sore feet in the mountain clear drink. My gaze scanned the rugged skyline to the East, finding the rocky cleft between the peaks where, not three hours ago, Matt and I had climbed on the very rocks that once had detained Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and recalled the words he had written to his friend Tom Wedgewood.

“I do not think it possible, that any bodily pains could eat out the love and joy, that is so substantially part of me, towards hills, and rocks, and steep waters! And I have had some trial.”

Kirk Fell from Wastwater

A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of The Great Outdoors Magazine.

Together We Stand

Nine Standards, a line of nine dry-stone cairns, standing proud on the skyline above the Cumbria market town of Kirkby Stephens, approximately half-way along Wainwright’s coast-to-coast route and just seven kilometres west of where the Pennine Way passes the famous Tan Hill Inn, provoke the inquisitive hiker to ask questions about their origin. One might imagine there would be many local legends and stories to tell about these enigmatic sentinels, placed by some unknown party high upon the gritstone moorland. But ask a local livestock farmer or passing farrier about the origin of these hurrocks of stone and you are more than likely to receive a shrug of the shoulders than any elaborate mythological tale. Fascinated by the prospect of an unsolved mystery linked to two of the country’s most famous long distance footpaths, I set out from Kirkby Stephens early one morning to investigate.

The path climbing from the River Eden folded around the ruins of Hartley Castle and entered a coppiced hazel wood where wild garlic grew in abundance. Over thousands of years the water of Ladthwaite Beck has carved its way through the Carboniferous limestone rock like a knife through wedding cake. Tilting steeply to the West, the rocks provided a path of least resistance for the ghyll as it cascaded in parallel to the ancient stratigraphy. 

Passing the remote settlement of Ladthwaite the path climbed onto Hartley Moor where the Nine Standards appeared on the horizon like a vanguard of petrified Daleks from a 1970’s episode of Dr Who.  A slightly more plausible explanation given for the position of the cairns is that they were built by local people during the medieval wars between England and Scotland to give the impression of an army encamped upon the hill, and hence, the idea suggests, deterring any potential Scots marauders.  The clear flaw in this theory being not only that the cairns are only visible on the skyline from the west and not from the north, east or south, but also that there are just nine cairns – no great army.  As I drew nearer to the cairns along the path that ran beside Faraday Gill (Ghyll surely Mr Ordnance Survey?), it became apparent that the cairns themselves were of a variety of shapes and sizes and appeared to have been designed to represent more than mere figures standing on a hill.

Dry Stone Cairns on Nine Standards Rigg

A W Wainwright mentioned them in his description of the coast-to-coast route, and although rightly dismissive of frankly patronising notions that they were built by local miners or shepherds who had nothing better to do, he regarded them merely as boundary cairns. The Standards sit on the boundary between the ancient counties of Yorkshire and Westmoorland, which is also the watershed dividing the Pennine Hills east and west. From here the Eden runs west to the Solway Firth and the Swale runs east to the North Sea.  Due to the exposed position of their location, the notoriously harsh winters of the northern Pennine Hills and the natural human instinct to climb on them, the cairns do suffer occasional structural damage and require intermittent maintenance. The last major re-build was commissioned by East Cumbria Countryside Project in 2005, which means that the cairns are currently in pretty good condition. Visitors are requested to treat them with respect, ensuring no stones are removed.

But what of their origin? How old are they and who built them? If we disregard the rebellious Scot deterrent theory, we must look elsewhere. Dr Stephen Walker, himself of Kirkby Stephen, has undertaken an extensive search of archives both local and national in an attempt to establish the facts about these strange cairns. His findings are remarkable. 

The cairns appear on the 1862 Ordnance Survey Six Inch (1:10,560) First Edition maps of Westmorland. They are marked on a variety of tithe, enclosure and estate maps dating from as early as 1738. They are mentioned on many boundary rolls, or perambulations as they are also known, written between 1400 and 1699. A perambulation was simply a list of landscape features which marked the boundary of particular estates, parishes or townships. The oldest historical reference to the cairns is contained within a transcription of a perambulation of Gilbert Gant, Lord of Swaledale, dating to sometime from the late 12th or early 13th century, thus proving that the Nine Standards cairns were standing above Kirkby Stephens no more than a hundred years after the Norman Conquest.

Prior to 1066 there is currently only speculation and hearsay. In 954 AD, Eric Bloodaxe, the last independent Viking king of York was ambushed and killed by Earl Maccus, son of Olaf, as he crossed the pass at Stainmore, now the route of the A66 from Scotch Corner to Penrith. Tradition held that Eric was buried at Rey Cross, but when the site was excavated to make way for the new dual-carriageway in the 1990’s, no burial was found. Only four miles to the south-west, do the nine standards mark the actual crossing point of the Pennine Hills used by Eric and thus his grave, and those of his noble companions?

Moving further back in time, in 118AD the Legio IX Hispana of the Roman Army was ordered north from York and, according to some scholars, was never seen again, allegedly annihilated by the Picts. It has been suggested that the nine standards are a lasting memorial to the defeated ninth legion. The obvious flaw in this theory being if the legion was wiped out, who was left to build the Cairns?

In his book, Nine Standards: Ancient Cairns or Modern Folly*, Dr Walker is clear and vociferous, “They were not built to give the invading Scots the impression that an English army was camped up there. Nor were they a job creation scheme for indigent lead miners by some eighteenth or nineteenth century philanthropist, still less a ‘folly’ built by one of the more deranged landed gentry, as some have suggested. They are in fact ancient and demonstrably so.” Nor are they simply boundary cairns. In number they are unique in the British landscape, repeated on no other watershed or county boundary from Sutherland to Cornwall. They are undoubtedly a work of art, created by a Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin of the time. Their very presence is meant to communicate a message. We have simply forgotten what the message was. 

Nine Standards: do the cairns commemorate a long forgotten battle?

A striking curiosity about Nine Standards Rigg, the hill upon which the cairns stand, is that its name is derived from the cairns themselves and hence post-dates them. They are not, for example “Old Harry’s Cairns on Backstone Hill”. The implication here is that for the topography to be named after a man-made feature, the feature must be very old indeed. Within the Brut y Bryttaniat, a 15th century manuscript copy of a 12th century script in Kymraec (Old Welsh), which was translated in to Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth, an account is given of a battle between the Britons and the Saxons at York in 504AD. The manuscript states that the Saxons were routed and fled into the mountains to take refuge at a place named “mynydd daned” or toothed mountain. The Britons rallied and attacked the mountain at night, slaying the Saxons. If “toothed mountain” is taken as a description of Nine Standards, this manuscript may indicate that the cairns date to as early as the 6th Century. 

The landscape around Kirkby Stephens contains other mythological echoes. Pendragon Castle, the supposed birthplace of Uther Pendragon lies just 6 miles to the south-west. Some would suggest Arthurian associations with the cairns. The 6th century British cleric Gildas places a Romano-British commander by the name of Ambrosius Aurelianus at a battle against the Saxons at a place known as Badon Hill, location now unknown. It is my own belief, and nothing more than a belief mind you, that Baidon Hill is the lost name of Nine Standards Rigg and that each cairn was built to bear the flag or “standard” of each tribe of the Britons who defeated the Saxon hoards there. The watershed west and east would be a most likely location for these two armies to meet, the Saxons having arrived form the east, Ambrosius Aurelianus from his Welsh stronghold in the west. Could Ambrosius Aurelianus be the historical fact behind the mythological legend we know as King Arthur?

Rhead, George Wooliscroft & Louis. “Arthur Leading the Charge at Mount Badon” from Tennyson, Alfred. Idylls of the King: Vivien, Elaine, Enid, Guinevere. New York: R. H. Russell, 1898.

But all this is speculation and conjecture. In the mists and shadows of time, names and places become confused. Distorted and manipulated by subsequent generations the truth rapidly becomes the first casualty of history. It is perhaps astounding then that no formal archaeological investigation of the Nine Standards has ever been undertaken. Until that time, it is only natural that people will look to the cairns and attach their own stories to explain their presence. For now the origin of the curious nonad of dry stone cairns upon Nine Standards Rigg must remain a mystery.

*Dr Walker’s book is available from Hayloft Publishing Ltd http://www.hayloft.eu/

This article first appeared in Cumbria Magazine, February 2014

Circle of Seasons

2020 has been a pretty dreadful year for most of us, but even in the darkness there is light. Circle of Seasons is my homage to some of my more positive experiences in 2020.

The music is Circle of Seasons by Tori Amos from her recently released EP Wintertide. It can be ordered in various formats from Tori’s website, here http://toriamos.com/

All videos and photographs were taken by me during 2020.

St Stephen’s St Stephen’s

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.

St Stephen’s Church, The Forest Chapel

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. 

A fissure in the rocks on top of Shutlingsloe

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. 

Pilgrimages

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.

Lamentations 3:16

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
are dateless

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. 


#adventbookclub is using “Frequencies of God” by Carys Walsh and you can support the publisher by buying it here: https://canterburypress.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9781786220882/frequencies-of-god.

You can find the Advent Book Club on Twitter and Facebook, and you are welcome to join in with thoughts and comments. https://www.facebook.com/groups/1220319721395793

The Moor

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. 


#adventbookclub is using “Frequencies of God” by Carys Walsh and you can support the publisher by buying it here:  https://canterburypress.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9781786220882/frequencies-of-god.

You can find the Advent Book Club on Twitter and Facebook, and you are welcome to join in with thoughts and comments.  https://www.facebook.com/groups/1220319721395793

Frequencies of God

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. 

Saint Stephen’s Church, Macclesfield Forest

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. 

Flower Face

“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

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.

Fferm Cwm, 1497

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.

Fferm Cwm, 1497

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.

Blodeuwedd in Bloom by Selina Fenech www.selinafecench.com

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.

Abandoned farm buildings below Pen y Foel-ddû

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.

Ruins of the Norman Motte and Roman fort at Castell Tomen-y-mur

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