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
The Staffordshire Moorlands are nothing if not a surprise. In the formative years of my exploration of the Peak District, I was astonished to discover that a sizeable portion of the gritstone uplands of Britain’s most popular national park, including the village of Flash, at 463 metres (1,519ft) above sea level the highest in Britain, lie within the administrative county of Staffordshire, more famous perhaps for pottery, Stoke City football team and the dolesome Alton Towers amusement park. More recently, as I find my time increasingly consumed by worldly concerns, it is among the nearby hills and dales of the Peak District that I find solace.
So with Hallowe’en fast approaching, the turning of the year echoed in the turning of the leaves to amber hues, I had hitched a lift from an old friend to the market town of Leek, from where I intended to make the long journey home to Manchester on foot.
Approaching the hamlet of Upper Hulme along Whitty Lane, the sky to the west began to cloud over grey and the fresh smell of cold air heralded light rain, which soon turned into a heavy downpour. Before long I found myself beneath the slim finger-like battlements of Hen Cloud – Cloud being a Staffordshire dialect word for hill – and sought to take shelter in a small wooden shed, which had been erected by the side of the road. These impressive towers of Carboniferous stone extending almost vertically into the leaden sky constitute the most southerly outcrop of the gnarled and contorted sandstone escarpments that are collectively known as the Roaches, their name being taken simply from the French word for rock.
By the tiny dwelling I was accosted by a man bedecked in dark green waterproofs, clasping a large and slightly threatening pair of binoculars. “Can I help you?” he ventured, and for a moment I wondered if, given recent seismic political movements in the country, the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 had overnight been repealed and I was trespassing on ‘his’ land. I subsequently noticed that I was standing beside a large and colourful banner proclaiming the work of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, which I had not previously noticed having been cocooned within the hood of my waterproof jacket in a vain attempt to keep out the driving rain.
The gentleman in question was not an irate gamekeeper but rather an enthusiastic volunteer named David who wanted to show me a pair of nesting Peregrine Falcons who had taken up residence some weeks earlier in the lofty fingers of Hen Cloud. “Do you see that central finger of rock, up there?” he pointed through the now stair-rod thick rain to the top of the aforementioned hill, “well, if you drop down on the crag about fifteen feet you can just see where the nest is.” I couldn’t see a thing and David offering the use of his steamed up binoculars made little difference, but for a good twenty minutes the pair of us stood there in the criminally torrential rain, two relatively sane, intelligent men, becoming increasingly saturated, trying to spot a pair of nesting birds of prey who probably had far better sense and were bunkered down within a protective crevice high up on the south face of Hen Cloud waiting for the storm to pass. In many ways I wanted to prolong this very British folly but I made my excuses to David, consulting both my watch and map, thankfully both contained within a waterproof casing, as to the next leg of my journey, and left him to his stewardship of the mighty Peregrines of Hen Cloud in the rain.
Don Whillans Hut
Nestled beneath the lower escarpment of the Roaches, half enclosed by the earthen-red rocks themselves, stands Rock Hall, formerly a summer house of the Roaches Estate, now owned by the British Mountaineering Council and given the epithet of the Don Whillans Memorial Hut. Don Whillans, a dour, stocky Salfordian with as much a taste for scrapping as for making breakthrough climbs on northern grit during the 1950’s with his buddy Joe Brown, is a bit of a hero of mine. Don, who grew up on the hard knocks streets of post-war Salford in Greater Manchester and quite literally punched above his weight when it came to breaking into the elitist world of British climbing, put up some of the landmark climbs on Peak District grit, most notably, at the Roaches. In his beautifully written biography of Whillans “The Villain” Jim Perrin describes how on 21 April 1951 Don had travelled to Leek by bus and having walked up to the climbing crags on the lower tier of the Roaches had watched as Joe Brown’s second had been unable – or unwilling – to follow the line of Joe’s ascent of Valkyrie buttress. Don had quickly volunteered to take up the slack, sprightly following Joe up the route that they later named as Matinee (grade HVS 5b) because of the crowd that had gathered to watch the spectacle. This was the first recorded climb of these luminaries who would go on to revolutionise traditional climbing. Just three years later Joe Brown and Don Whillans would have moved on from the gritstone crags of the Roaches, via the volcanic crags of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu in Snowdonia, to the lofty needles of the Alps, making the first ascent of the Petit Dru West Face, Chamonix in 1954.
Whillans went on to be a leading figure in the British mountaineering community of the 1960’s and 1970’s completing the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney on Mont Blanc with Chris Bonington and Ian Clough in 1961, the first ascent of the Central Torres del Paine, Patagonia again with Chris Bonington in 1963 and most famously the first ascent of the south face of Annapurna with Dougal Haston in 1970. Don Whillans sadly died in his sleep on 04 August 1985 – he was just 52 years old.
As I ascended the climbers’ steps at the rear of Valkyrie Crag to the second tier of the Roaches, the weather turned from inclement to tempestuous. The occluded Atlantic front which earlier that day had swept across the Western Approaches of the British Isles now slammed into the elevated ridge of the Roaches with all the malignant force of the wailing Banshee supposed to inhabit the moorland tarn known as Doxey Pool, beside which I now stood. Surmising that the Banshee’s curse had certainly come upon me by virtue of hail stones like shot pellets which now dug themselves into the saturated sandy ground around me with sufficient velocity to create tiny craters, I struggled manfully away from the accursed pool with as much speed as I could muster, soon arriving at the white washed ordnance survey triangulation pillar that marks the highest point along the ridge. I continued bravely northwards, losing some altitude through the swirling mists and biting hail, until I caught a glimpse of a sizeable object sheltered in the lee of a dry stone wall.
Being chilled thoroughly to the bone by precipitation as cold as a widow’s elbow, I considered the possibility that first stage hypothermia had set in and as a consequence I was hallucinating, when the object in question assumed the tangible form of an ice-cream van, its colourful logos enthusiastically advertising ice-cold drinks, various flavours of ice cream and cheerfully exhorting me to ‘have an ice day!’ Salvador Dali himself could not have conjured up such a surreal juxtaposition. I considered ordering a ‘ninety-nine’ but my fingers were too cold to open the pocket in my rucksack where I had stashed away some lose change. Thinking better of it I pushed on and as I followed what sometime earlier that day had been a path but now was most definitely a stream, towards Gradbach Wood, the hailstones ceased their torrent of abuse, and in their place came a relatively welcome fine British drizzle.
Amongst the mixed deciduous woodland of Back Forest on the north facing slopes of the Dane Valley, where larch, pine and hazel give way to a plantation of slender silver birch trees, is hidden a narrow chasm, sunk some twenty metres into the fractured millstone grit. My understanding of this curious feature is that it is post-glacial in origin, most probably having formed following the retreat of the ice caps at the end of the most recent glacial maximum, some twelve thousand years before present. It is essentially an expansion crack, as might appear as the result of settlement in the plasterwork of new buildings. In much the same way, as the weight of ice was removed from the land and isostatic uplift resulted in geomorphological instability, the rock has fractured, moving several metres into the Dane Valley, itself a product of glacial run-off waters, the line of fracture exploiting weaknesses in the Carboniferous rocks that may have existed for millions of years. This geomorphological phenomenon is known locally as Lud’s Church, the etymology of which is anything but certain.
Myth’s and legends gather about Lud’s Church just as the emerald mosses, ferns, grasses and liverworts cling to the near vertical walls of the chasm. Being in shade for much of the year, the direct rays of the sun only penetrating the depths of the ravine during the season around midsummer when the midday sun is directly overhead, Lud’s Church provides the perfect habitat for woodland species that are able to exploit the dank, moist ledges, crevices, corners and fissures in the rock face on the cavern walls. Rock ledges are garlanded with Oak and Holly Ferns. Wood sorrel grows in abundance among Elegant Silk Moss (pseudotaxiphyllum elegens) and Crescent-cup Liverwort (lunularia cruciata) and where the dominant species allow, waxy green lichens such as Sticta Canariensis take a hold, punctuated by the occasional cluster of Cladonia coccifera or devil’s matchsticks.
Followers of the 14thCentury non-conformist preacher John Wycliffe, known as Lollards, were thought to have met at Lud’s Church for religious worship in order to avoid persecution. It is believed that following one such secret meeting a notable Lollard, Walter de Ludank was arrested here, the chasm thereafter taking his name.
A popular misconception holds that the term Lud’s Church is associated with the Luddite movement of the early 19thCentury. This is no the case. Luddites were textile workers, mainly in the north of England, who protested against the mechanisation of the textile industry by the deliberate vandalism of new weaving technologies such as stocking frames and power looms. Any similarity in name is purely coincidental. Despite these associations, and further legends that other notables employed the chasm as a refuge from authority, including Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and Bonnie Prince Charlie, is more likely that the name ‘Lud’ has a much older etymology and may be Celtic or pre-Christian in origin.
Sir John Rhys, the 19thCentury pioneer of Celtic philology, identified several characters from the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as the Mabinogion as potential Celtic deities. One such character is Nudd, whom Rhys believed to be cognate with the Roman-British deity Nodens, or Núadu in the Irish literature. It was Sir John’s belief that three specific characters from the Mabinogion could be linked to the deity of Nudd, these being Lludd Llaw Eraint (Silver Hand) father of Creiddylad who appears in the Arthurian tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Skilful Hand) whom appears in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion and Lludd ap Beli, ruler of the Island of Britain and brother of Llefelys, the primary characters in the brief tale of Lludd & Llefelys. Rhys, partly influenced by the French historian Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville, went even further to suggest the existence of a pan-Celtic deity combining all of these characters known as Lugus (Hutton, 2013). It was this association that linked the name of Lud’s Church in Staffordshire with worship of the pagan god Nodens. In contemporary times Lud’s Church is still an important location for those practicing the Wiccan or neo-Pagan path of spirituality to which the presence of a votive coin log in the main chamber of the chasm attests.
Taking medieval linguistics as prima facie evidence, scholars generally agree that the Staffordshire Moorlands are the dialectal epicentre of a piece of late 14thCentury poetry written in Middle English, known to the British Library as manuscript Cotton Nero A. xbut more widely known as the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This surviving manuscript, which would easily fit in the palm of your hand, was held in a private collection in Yorkshire during the 16thand 17thCenturies. It was first edited and printed in the original Middle English in 1839 and most famously translated into modern English by JRR Tolkien and EV Gordon in 1925.
Thought to have been transcribed around 1390, the alliterative poem is without doubt one of the finest examples of medieval poetry in the English tongue and tells the story of a young, perhaps somewhat naïve knight of King Arthur’s court named Gawain whom is challenged to a rather gruesome duel by a most curious and unearthly creature.
The Story begins at Christmas time as the King’s courtiers are enjoying the commencement of a fortnight of feasting, when the festivities are disrupted by the arrival of a ghastly creature, half man half ogre who seemingly unchallenged rides into the court astride a green horse, himself dressed in garments of emerald green, his hair and skin the very same colour. The uninvited guest lays down a challenge before Arthur and his knights, that he will permit any such knight brave enough to take up the challenge to strike him at the neck with an axe, on the understanding that the very same knight will seek out the green ogre at the turning of the year to receive from him the very same blow. Thinking he cannot possibly lose this strange engagement, the young Gawain steps forward to accept the challenge and with a single swing of his axe cleanly smites the Green Knight’s neck, the severed head coming to rest at the feet of King Arthur himself. The assembled guests look on in horror as the beheaded Green Knight steadies himself, then grasping the bright green locks of hair, picks up his own head from the reed strewn floor and turning to Gawain, repeats the terms of the pledge, counselling Gawain to keep his word or be forever known as a coward. With all mouths agape the Green Knight mounts his green horse and, head in hand, gallops from the hall. Over the course of a year, Gwain is forced to overcome many obstacles and temptations before he ultimately finds his way to the Green Chapel, with which Lud’s Church is colloquially associated, to keep his ominous appointment with the ghoulish Green Knight, the outcome of which I will refrain from revealing.
Naturally, doubt exists as to the validity of the transposition of a fictional story onto an actual geographic location, but standing within the richly abundant cascade of verdant plant life, everywhere alive with the whispered drip, drip of water, it is easy to see how the human imagination could transform the deep, narrow rock chasm into the cathedral nave of some long forgotten nature cult, or the great hall of some malign ogre or pagan god.
Emerging from the rank foliation of Lud’s hidden Church, blinking in the now brilliant sunlight of early afternoon, I saw ahead of me the outcrop known colloquially as Castle Rock, where I found a suitable prospect from which to view the valley below. Vaporous pennons of mist rose incrementally upward from the body of the forest, the saturated trees exhaling into the clearing sky, patches of blue breaking apart the sulphurous clouds. Having rested, I descended through the forest to Gradbach Mill, no longer a place of textile production but a beautifully situated youth hostel, alongside which, by means of a narrow stone bridge I crossed the ebullient waters of the River Dane, into Cheshire.
At Heild End Farm I crossed the A54 Buxton Road and wound my way passed a fine, though slightly dilapidated two storey barn, its slate roof still more or less intact, an ideal place to shelter from a storm or even spend a night, should one find oneself benighted on the moor, and dropped into the vale of Wildboarclough. By the time I reached the Crag Inn the weather had turned around again and the fresh smell of rain and the vanguard of descending, distended drops forced me to stop and adjust my clothing. The east slope of Shuttlingsloe is the steepest of the sharks-fin hill, known locally with much conviviality as the Cheshire Matterhorn, and I certainly felt the pull of gravity on my calf muscles as I laboured my way to the hills crazy-pathed summit. Sticking my head above the outcrop of Chatsworth Gritstone on the south east edge of the hills summit plateau, I was met with a blast of cold, damp air a across the Cheshire Plain translucent sheets of rain swept inwards, propelled by cadaverously oppressive clouds. I elected not to linger and instead descended rapidly to the north and the relative shelter of the Sitka Spruce plantations of Macclesfield Forest, finding shelter beneath the interlaced branches of pine needles as swathes of sleet blew in form the west.
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 15thCentury.
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. Outside, a Highway’s sign proclaimed Charity Lane unsuitable for motor vehicles, the very sandstone bedrock having been exposed by years of runoff water from the surrounding hills. As I contoured the higher ridges, the forest below me exhaled again into the now blinding evening light, plumes of vapour rising effortlessly through the suddenly undisturbed forest. I had been walking for over ten hours and as I climbed the steep hard-set path towards Tegg’s Nose, the sacroiliac joints of my pelvis began to complain vociferously. Not wishing to chance a sustained injury, I staggered down the Old Buxton Road to Macclesfield Station from where with prospects of real ale and painkillers, I telephoned a friend and procured a bed for the night.
This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.
One of my most treasured books, which I return to for reference more than any other book I possess, is The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, first published by the American academic and poet Frances Stillman in 1966. The dogeared copy on my bookshelves was purchased in 1991 upon it’s eighth re-print, since when it has influenced and informed my understanding and appreciation of poetry. An invaluable pre-internet resource for any aspiring poet, in addition to a complex and comprehensive rhyming dictionary her book contains seven chapters outlining the traditional structures, meters, rhymes and forms of poetry as appreciated towards the termination of the twentieth century, illustrated with excerpts from many well known poets and a modest scattering of her own verse.
Although copies of her books can still be found in second hand bookshops and even on certain online book forums, sadly, Stillman herself seems to have slipped into obscurity. A brief obituary from the New York Times dated 5 February 1975 reads as follows:
“Dr. Frances Jennings Stillman, assistant professor of English at City College and a writer and translator, died Monday at New York Hospital of complications resulting from kidney failure. She was 65 years old. Dr. Stillman, who also had taught at Brooklyn and Hunter, Colleges, was the author of “The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary.” She translated “Flemish Tapestries,” written by Roger D’Hulst, and “Oriental Love Poems,” among other works. For many years, she was an officer in the New York Chapter of the American Association of University Women. Dr. Stillman earned B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. degree at the City University of New York.”
It was Dr Stillman who, through her book, introduced me to the lyrical form known as the Sapphic, named after the enigmatic Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos during the sixth Century BC.
The historical biography of the poet known as Sappho is fragmentary and speculative. She was believed to have been born on the island of Lesbos around 620 BC. During antiquity she was regarded as one of the finest lyrical poets of the time. Plato revered her as the tenth muse (in Greek mythology there were traditionally believed to be nine muses devoted to poetry, history, music, dance and astronomy, amongst other things).
Many of Sappho’s poems have been lost, and much of those that survive do so in fragmentary form, but her influence upon modern poetry, particularly the Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cannot be understated. Her poems have been translated by Sir Philip Sidney, Percy Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson and many others, including the nineteenth-century Greek poet Aléxandros Soútsos. The spontaneity, simplicity, and honesty of her verse strongly influenced the Romantic idea of the poet as a creature of feeling, one whose solitary song is overheard, as opposed to the classical didactic model of the poet as a cultural spokesperson.
As Dr Stillman teaches, the main building blocks of the sapphic are trochees and dactyls. The trochee is a metrical foot with one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, while the dactyl contains a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The first three lines of the sapphic contain two trochees, a dactyl, and then two more trochees. The shorter fourth, and final, line of the stanza is called an “Adonic” and is composed of one dactyl followed by a trochee.
The following deconstruction uses a verse from a modern English translation of Sappho’s Anactoria poem.
The extant fragment of this poem explores Sappho’s longing for her lost love Anaktória, and her admiration of the female form.
Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen
on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
she whom one loves best
is the loveliest. Light were the work to make this
plain to all, since she, who surpassed in beauty
all mortality, Helen, once forsaking
her lordly husband,
fled away to Troy—land across the water.
Not the thought of child nor beloved parents
was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus
won her at first sight.
Since young brides have hearts that can be persuaded
easily, light things, palpitant to passion
as am I, remembering Anaktória
who has gone from me
and whose lovely walk and the shining pallor
of her face I would rather see before my
eyes than Lydia’s chariots in all their glory
armoured for battle
The erotic homosexual content of many of her poems has won Sappho the accolade of being the first (first recorded at least) Lesbian, the very term being derived form her Aegean island home of Lesbos. Undoubtedly, it was the freely erotic components of her work that fascinated certain protagonists of the Romantic movement, who in their own somewhat chauvinist way were striving to break free of the cultural conventionality of eighteenth and nineteenth century society.
Perhaps the most accomplished Romantic exponent of the Sapphic form was Algernon Charles Swinburne. Very much a product of the English Victorian establishment, born to a wealthy family in the North East of England, educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, Swinburne none-the-less became a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the conservative values of his time. Greatly influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other member of the Pre-Raphaeltie Brotherhood, his poems were often explicitly sexual, perhaps designed specifically to shock the very establishment from which he came. Swinburne gained notoriety in 1865 with the publication of Poems and Ballads, a collection of poems which many critics of the time regarded as indecent.
The fragment below is taken from his poem Sapphics, written in the Sapphic meter as described above and undoubtedly in homage to the poet Sappho.
All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
Stood and beheld me.
Then to me so lying awake a vision
Came without sleep over the seas and touched me,
Softly touched mine eyelids and lips; and I too,
Full of the vision,
Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
Saw the reluctant
Feet, the straining plumes of the doves that drew her,
Looking always, looking with necks reverted,
Back to Lesbos, back to the hills whereunder
Many years ago, inspired by Dr Stillman’s tutelage, I put pen to paper and came up with the poem below, which I called Castaway. It is based on the myth of Calypso, as told in Homer’s Odyssey, who detained the Greek hero Odysseus on the island of Ogygia during his long voyage home from the Trojan wars.
Wreckage adrift on blue Aegean waters
Clinging the rope cut fingers burn and blister
Slowly cracking the salty sun bleached timbers
bake in the sunlight
Came I to these islands by currents rolling
Red kelp and oyster shell over and over
Till bound in their shackles washed ashore on her
shingle she found me
Almond Oil and Meadow sweet, fresh mint from the
Mountains, yellow Broom and Oak flower petals
Smoothed by her spidery fingers worked warm through
my still dormant flesh
Lips part to tongue touching teeth with each whisper
Soft scent of apples her dark anaesthesia
Heady the night the breath of her warm body
falls sleep over me
Daylight gold in her hair veils sweet soft hollows
Wine blushed lips taste the damp dew of the morning
Naked children of an absent god giggle
at their honesty
Long shore pull drags the hissing shingle seaward
Roar of the deep wave beckons the shifting tide
Impudent voice of reason voice of motion
still calling, calling
Frances Jennings Stillman obituary from the New York Times: accessed 6 August 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/1975/02/05/archives/dr-frances-stillman-dies-english-professor-at-city-65.html
The sheep at Top Withens are evil. I say this without a word of exaggeration or hyperbole, and have learned to beware their very presence. Being so accustomed to the perpetual drip-drip of visitors, from Haworth, from Stanbury, from Heptonstall, they have become tame – no, fearless – to the point of sociopathy. They will take the sandwich from your hand without a second thought and stand before you whilst they eat it. They will harass small children, friendly dogs, hikers and foreign visitors alike and will ultimately claim Top Withens as their own. I wonder sometimes if Emily Brontë did not take as the model for the sadistic and vengeful Mr Heathcliff one of these ovine inhabitants of Haworth Moor with their demonic yellow eyes and curling horns.
Perhaps it is the sheep that imbue Top Withens with its maleficent energy. Perhaps it is the location, its foundations higher than the grasstops. Perhaps it is the north wind blowing over the edge that begins to invoke the spell; a conjugation of myth, history and fiction, an association of memories from our own lives and the lives of others, weaving these disparate strands together as the Sunderland family wove the strands of wool from their own and their neighbours sheep to produce a thick, hispid material. Or perhaps it is simply a human instinct to see patterns in the landscape: faces in the rocks, voices in the wind, and stories in the ordinary lives of the hill farming families. But the patterns are seductive, drawing us in, until the landscape is transformed by our imagination and the patterns take on a life of their own.
Beyond Delf Hill, the plateau of moorland stretched out before me to the north and west. On the high expanses of the moor, distances become elusive, and it can be difficult to determine scale. I walked for almost a kilometre across the ling heather and tussocks of cotton grass with little alteration in elevation and without passing anything higher than my kneecaps. In low cloud it is remarkably easy to become disoriented and lost on the high moorlands, as the uninitiated and poorly prepared often discover. Thankful of good visibility, I was able to use the considerable scattering of frost shattered, wind-eroded boulders known as the Alcomden Stones as a visual guide. The intricate shapes and patterns made on these stones by thousands of years of wind, rain and ice suggest human involvement in their creation, a pre-historic Henry Moore perhaps. A precariously positioned rocking stone is thought by some to be a Bronze Age cromlech, known by common association as a Druidic altar for dubious sacrifice, whilst others believe the precarious stone to be a result of post-glacial erosion. I am of the former persuasion for I believe the Alcomden Stones to be a liminal zone, a place where the veil between the material and the spiritual realms is perceptibly thin, or at least perceptible to some.
Just below the cantilever in a cleft, where two of the boulders have fallen together, a tiny shelter had been fashioned by the construction of a small dry stone wall to close off the gap beneath the boulders. Judging by the extensive growth of Cladonia floerkeana, or the Devil’s Matchsticks, on the wall, it had been in place for some years, possibly having been used as a shelter for shepherds or gamekeepers caught in bad weather on the moor. Given the sheet of polythene spread out inside the cavity and a discarded, rusted gas container, someone had spent the night there not too long ago. I put the gas container in my rucksack to dispose of later.
To the west of the Alcomden stones, a shallow trench marked the same constitutional boundary I had stumbled upon by Oxenhope Stoop Hill. I followed its line, passing a number of shin high boundary stones marked “KC 1902” indicating the purchase of the moor to the east by Keighley Corporation in that year. A mile or so northwest the trench meets the county boundary of Lancashire and Yorkshire as it transects from west to east before making a sharp turn to the north at a curious feature known as ‘the Lad’. Whether boundary stone or monolith, the hefty gritstone tooth protruding from the moor solicits a choice from passers by, being engraved in capitals “LAD OR SCARR ON CROW HILL” an act of vandalism thought to originate from an 18thCentury boundary dispute. Curious to see what I might find I headed out across the Wage of Crow Hill onto Stanbury Bog, finding it much less saturated than expected, undoubtedly the result of much improved drainage, introduced to encourage the growth of heather, which prefers dryer soil, for the convenience of the grouse and the shooting parties that come in pursuit of that comical little bird. Half a mile or so south of ‘the Lad’ I came across a natural drainage channel and a considerable depression in the peat, devoid of heather, which bore more than a passing resemblance to Patrick Brontë’s description of the site of the 1824 “phenomenon”, albeit somewhat reduced in depth by the accumulation of peaty material from the surrounding moor over the course of almost two hundred years.
“a part of the moors in my chapelry … sunk into two wide cavities; the larger of which measured three hundred yards in length, above two hundred in breadth, and was five or six yards deep.”[i]
Harwood Brierley gave an account for the Leeds Mercury in 1928 of a visit to Stanbury Bog in the company of local quarry man William Kay. Brierley noted how “the very top of the bog bore evidences enough of primeval forest land … to my astonishment I beheld piles of firewood representing some hundreds of pine, fur (sic), and oak trunks or roots, some still fast in the bogland … and was informed that the lot had been exposed to view by the disruption of 1824, being the remains of a Roman Forest.”[ii] On the day I made my journey to the “swamp of Wuthering Heights”, the “piles of firewood” were nowhere to be seen, perhaps long ago removed by local inhabitants, although I did stumble upon a small exposure of preserved tree material in the peat, possibly giving credence to this heather-less depression as the site of the afore mentioned eruption.
To the west the sun was lingering above the outline of Boulsworth Hill and I resolved to abandon my explorations for the day and head via Bracken Hill down to Ponden Hall. Passing by the old house I glanced up at the tiny mullioned window in the east gable where it is said Emily Brontë took inspiration for the appearance of Cathy’s ghost to Lockwood and for a brief moment thought I glimpsed a child’s face pressed against the glass. A trick of the light no doubt or a product of my over active imagination.
In the editor’s preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë made concession to “what are termed (and, perhaps, really are) its faults;” but it would be churlish to drag Emily Brontë through the mire of literary criticism without an acknowledgement of the fierce individuality of her work in a time when ‘authoress’ was considered to be an unwise occupation for a lady, particularly the daughter of a parson. Her genius was not solely in the telling of a story, for which she drew heavily on her Gondal epics, borrowed themes from her brother, creating a narrative that is sometimes incohesive and perhaps simplistic in characterisation. Her genius was in taking a scalpel to the conventionality and hypocrisy of nineteenth century society, in portraying the often brutal reality of life as it was for the inhabitants of the Yorkshire moors at a time of great industrial and social upheaval. To quote the biographer Winifred Gerin, Emily possessed an “attitude of defiance towards the social, and even more towards the national, traditions of the English novel.” More vociferously, as her sister Charlotte proclaimed in the preface to the 1847 edition of Jane Eyre, in defence of those critics who believed the Brontës to be immoral, “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the latter.”
Although there are undoubted similarities between her novel and the landscape of the Haworth Moors, in the lives of those who were witness to the gradual demise of the stone house and the way of life that went with it, in reality, Wuthering Heights only ever existed in the imagination of Emily Brontë. And whatever her inspiration, if there is an association with the farm building of Top Withens, if there is a thread that, even today, binds fact and fiction together, poetry and prose, joy and tragedy; it is because we have made it thus. Ellen Nussey, Edward Wimperis, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Jane Urquhart, Glyn Hughes and every one of us who has ever made the rough journey, with a sad heart, along Sladen Beck, through the landscape that now bears her name, to the top of that stark, rain bleached moor and stood among the pitiless sheep, and the truncated ruins of Wuthering Heights, wishing the fiction could, just for one moment, be made real.
[i]Brontë, Patrick ‘The Phenomenon; or an account in verse of the extraordinary disruption of a bog which took place in the moors of Haworth’ printed by T. Inkersley, 1824 – in the care of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
[ii]Brierley, Harwood ‘The Swamp of “Wuthering Heights” Scene of the Bog-Burst Patrick Brontë preached on.’Leeds Mercury, 6th August 1928 – from C.M. Edgerley’s scrap books in the care of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
Following the death of Charlotte Brontë in 1855 and the subsequent biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, published in 1857, there was a surge in popularity of Charlotte and Emily’s novels[i]. As a consequence, a morbid curiosity grew up around the lives of the tragic sisters and the pilgrimage to the parsonage at Haworth, and to Top Withens in particular, became a common undertaking for the literary enthusiast and the down right nosey. The pilgrims came from everywhere: Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, America, all wanting to touch the landscape the Brontës had created. One young American woman came with her new husband and his uncle, Walt, eager in her enthusiasm for romanticism to see the place where Heathcliff and Cathy had roamed the moors. Her transatlantic, almost manic, energy embraced everything with a child-like enthusiasm, as her journal showed. “central tragic figure – Uncle W. – drama of Cathy & Heathcliffe – close.” She made lists of words, Brontë words, stolen from the Parsonage: “luminous – bluish – watercolor – blue book, leather – sofa – Emily died – 19thDec 1848” – in the margin of her notebook she drew a simple sketch of the sofa on which Emily spent her final hours. Uncle Walt showed them the way from Stanbury to Top Withens, where she made a pen & ink drawing of the dilapidated farmhouse, capturing the asperous simplicity of the place, the isolation, the sadness, and the ever-dutiful sycamore trees standing close by. She posed in the branches of one of the trees for a photograph, young, beautiful, vivaciously intelligent, full of life. [ii]
“There are two ways to the stone house, both tiresome. One, the public route from the town along green pastureland over stone stiles to the voluble white cataract that drops its long rag of water over rocks warped round.”
“The other – across the slow heave, hill on hill from any other direction across bog down to the middle of the world, green-slimed, boots squelchy – brown peat – earth untouched except by grouse foot – bluewhite spines of gorse, the burnt-sugar bracken – all eternity, wilderness, loneliness – peat colored water – the house – small, lasting – pebbles on roof, name scrawls on rock – inhospitable two trees on the lee side of the hill where the long winds come, piece the light in a stillness. The furious ghosts nowhere but in the heads of the visitors & the yellow-eyed shag sheep. House of love lasts as long as love in human mind – blue-spidling gorse.”[iii]
Sylvia Path and Ted Hughes met at a party held at the Women’s Union, Falcon Yard, Cambridge to celebrate the publication of a new literary magazine, the St Botolph’s Review, partly edited by Hughes himself. Plath had earlier bought a copy from Bert Wyatt-Brown and had memorised some of Hughes’ poems so as to recite them to him and to impress[iv]. The effect on Ted Hughes was conclusive and their tempestuous relations began, as it was to continue.
“And I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hair band off, my lovely red hairband scarf which had weathered the sun and much love, and whose like I shall never again find, and my favourite silver earrings: hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.”[v]
Plath and Hughes were married in haste, with a special dispensation from the Archbishop of Canterbury (a waiver of any waiting period or of required residential status) at St. George the Martyr, Bloomsbury on 16t June 1956 – Bloomsday – which was not a coincidence. Finding themselves penniless after the wedding, they move in with Ted’s parents at the family home in Heptonstall, Yorkshire and Sylvia was eager to take this opportunity to explore the wild, barren country of Hughes’ home.
Their visits to Top Withens clearly left a deep impression on both Hughes and Plath, for its image, and the image of the Yorkshire Moors are recurrent themes in their poetry. In her poem, ‘Wuthering Heights’written some years after their stay in Yorkshire, when the pair had moved to Devon, Plath recalls the isolation of the stone house.
Sylvia Path died from carbon monoxide poisoning on 11 February 1963, aged thirty; a successful poet with a single novel to her name, ‘The Bell Jar’, published just a month before her death. Her asphyxiation was self-inflicted. Returning to Top Withens years after his wife’s death Ted Hughes recalled their earlier visits, how the small property then still bore the resemblance of a house, how she had excitedly suggested they buy the place and renovate it, how she had sketched, wrote, been wonderful. But twenty years had passed and Top Withens had become an empty shell, devoid of life and character.
We had all the time in the world.
Walt would live as long as you had lived.
Then the timeless eye blinked.
Squared with Water Authority concrete, a roofless
Pissoir for sheep and tourists marks the site
Of my Uncles disgust.
But the tree –
That’s still there, unchanged beside its partner
Where my camera held (for that moment) a ghost.”[vii]
“It’s twenty years, I’ve been a waif for twenty years! Let me in – let me in!”
[i]Sadly, Anne’s novels appear to have been mostly forgotten until much later in the 20th Century.
[ii]Stevenson, Anne 1989 ‘Bitter Fame: a life of Sylvia Plath’ Viking Penguin Inc
[iii]Kukil, Karen, V. (ed. 2000) ‘The Journals of Sylvia Path 1950-1962’ Faber & Faber Ltd, pp589