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.
“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
At 854m in height, Arenig Fawr lays no claim to be amongst the mightiest of peaks in Snowdonia. The late W. A. Poucher ranked the rocky summit of this remote mountain as 24th in an ordinal list of the Welsh Peaks. But a mountain is more than a mere measurement of its ascent above ordnance datum, as obsessive peak-baggers and list tickers may fail to acknowledge. It is a massif of geological history, an eco system of flora and fauna, a facilitator of meteorological phenomenon, a catalyst of story, myth and legend, a home of spirits from an earlier age.
I first fell under the spell of this less well known area of the Welsh mountains as a student at Aberystwyth University. As Michaelmas term progressed and the nights began to draw in around the somewhat claustrophobic collegiate town, we looked with increasing anticipation to our weekend forays into the Welsh countryside to find space and light. And so we stumbled across the mountains to the south of Llyn Celyn, since when something has called me back time and time again.
On the autumnal equinox I set off to spend the night at the MBA hut situated rather apprehensively just below the slightly Heath Robinson looking dam at Llyn Arenig Fawr. As the hut is situated less than two miles south of the A4212 Y Bala-Trawsfynydd road I decided to extend the journey by starting at the Llyn Celyn dam, picking my way through the farms and fields around Mynydd Nodol and crossing a rather boggy Nant Aberderfel, where the Ordnance Survey indicated path seems to vanish into purple moor grass, bog myrtle and waist-high heather. After four rather gruelling miles I arrived at the bothy, which was, thankfully, empty. The hut is only just large enough for one person, or perhaps two if they know each other well, and probably dates from 1830 when Llyn Arenig Fawr was first adapted as a reservoir to provide the town of Y Bala with drinking water. The lake gains some shelter from storms as it lies in the lee of the crags of Simdde Ddu, but as an autumnal wind began to get up across the silvery waters, as the light began to fail and the rain began to pitter-pat on the steel chimney cap, I determined the best course of action was to light a fire in the somewhat smoky grate and settle down for the night.
In geological terms Arenig Fawr was born 490 million years ago in a sea of fire and foam in a part of geological time known as the Ordovician. The collision of continental plates gave rise to an arc of fierce volcanic activity. The volcanoes erupted into a shallow sea with explosive force, spuing out pyroclastic flows of white-hot ash and lava, which roared with breathtaking speed into the surrounding waters, making them boil and hiss. These “nuées ardentes” or burning clouds, rapidly cooled in air, in water to form solid rock: ignimbrites, tuffs, breccias, from which the lofty crags of Arenig Fawr were chiselled.
During the last ice age some 14,000 years ago, sheets of ice would have submerged these valleys, with only the mountaintops protruding above, a veritable flood concealing the fertile valleys from hunter gatherers and forcing them south to warmer climes. As the valleys and human imagination began to emerge from beneath the ice, stories were woven by the Celtic people about a race of giants who lived among them. Idris was one such giant, living upon his seat “Cadair Idris” and who would initiate contests between other giants, Yscydion, Offrwm and Ysbryn who also lived amongst these hills and mountains. There is an account in the Welsh Triads of the bursting of Llyn Llion that resulted in the deaths of all living people, with the exception of Dwyfan and Dwyfach, who escaped in a boat without sails, and went on to repopulate the British Isles with their offspring. Arenig Fawr seems a likely place for the grounding of this mythological boat, the Welsh for Ark being Aren or Arene. Similarly, it is believed locally that the ruins of an ancient and legendary city lie beneath the waters of Llyn Tegid, or Bala Lake as it is know in English, once lost in a great flood. The lake, formed by glacial melt waters following the last ice age, is one of the last habitats of the Gwyniad fish, a small salmonid creature. Three rather forlorn looking specimens of this remnant of a post-glacial ecosystem sit pickled in formaldehyde in the White Lion Hotel on the main street of Y Bala. Another local legend tells of a farmer who once found a fairy calf among the rushes of Llyn Arenig Fawr, and reared it as one of his own cattle. For many years it produced many fine offspring, making him a wealthy man, until one day a small man playing a pipe appeared by the lake and by his eerie music, led the animal back into the waters to rejoin the fairy herd. Born from water and returned to water.
I awoke to a cold, wet, grey morning and struggled to raise myself from the warmth of my sleeping bag. After a breakfast of kippers cooked on the old iron pan I found hanging on the bothy wall, I carefully balanced across the rickety old iron ladder spanning the water out-flow of the dam, and began to ascend the limb of Y Castell to the south-west of the lake. As I climbed higher and the expanse of open country to the south gradually began to reveal itself, I could see three sheets of water dominating the landscape: Llyn Celyn to the north, Llyn Arenig Fawr in the corrie below, and across the moorland to the south, Llyn Tegid, cradled in the valley beneath the lofty crags of Aran Fawddwy.
The spirit of Arenig Fawr can be deceptively passive, imbued with an air of amiability, beneath which lies a dark and angry character. On clear spring days, with the song of skylarks lifting high into the azure sky, the climb to the summit is a little more than a strenuous walk. But in winter, when the mountain is draped in snow and ice, reminiscent of that long ago age, when black clouds tear across the summit ridge propelled by winds strong enough to lift walkers from their feet and dash them onto the jagged rocks below, then one might imagine giants battling in these hills.
On a moonless August night in 1943 the deep thrum of aircraft engines could be heard above the wind, echoing along the Dyfrdwy Valley. The aircraft was a United States Air Force B17 Flying Fortress, “Mr Five-by-Five”, on night training manoeuvres, many miles off course. It is thought that the crew never saw Arenig Fawr in the darkness. Had the aircraft been just fifty metres higher they would have cleared the summit ridge, secured their location and returned to base for cocoa and a good night’s sleep. The summit cairn now bears a slate memorial to the eight American crewmembers, each one originating from a different state of the Union, who were killed that night. The area is even now scattered with fragments of metal, mostly fused, one would suspect at very high temperature, into the volcanic breccias that form the rocky outcrop, such that it is impossible to tell where aluminium ends and the natural rock begins. The bodies of the crewmen were never found.
To the south of the summit, Moel yr Eglwys, Church Hill, lies an area of rare simplicity and beauty where a scatter of crystal-clear pools, encircled by rich, red bog grasses, lie amongst undulating crags and rocky tors. Westward, across the boggy col of Ceunant Coch, I climbed to the summit of Moel Llyfnant and was rewarded with a view across Coed-y-Brenin, the King’s Forest, to the Rhinogydd, dark and silent like sleeping giants, beneath a blanket of cold-grey cloud.
To the north of Moel Llyfnant, on the descent towards Amnodd-bwll and Amnodd-wen, there are remains of shielings, or hafod in Welsh, buildings associated with the summer grazing of livestock, probably dating from the 18thCentury. Many are of considerable size and extent, belying the once active agricultural history of this barren landscape, populated now only by walkers, lone forestry workers and the occasional sheep.
In twenty-four hours I saw not one other person until I reached the sleepy hamlet of Arenig, from where I crossed Afon Tryweryn to reach again the A4212, where the cars and lorries race at foolish speed. Circling the lake I was reminded of the latest tale in these chronicles of fire and flood. In 1965, the construction of the reservoir of Llyn Celyn, built to provide water to the city of Liverpool via the river Dee, resulted in the flooding of Capel Celyn, a small village, which was a centre of welsh cultural activity. Local bitter feelings were exacerbated by the insensitivity of the authorities involved and the passing of the legislation for the reservoir in Parliament despite the opposition of thirty-five of the thirty-six incumbent Welsh members. The incident is remembered as a moot point for advocates of the Welsh Language, most notably by a piece of graffito on the wall of a ruined stone cottage by the A487 at Llanrhystud, outside Aberystwyth bearing the inscription “Cofiwch Dryweryn” Remember Tryweryn.
Arenig Fawr is an old, old mountain and has seen much in its lifetime, has many stories to tell of giants and fairies, fire, ice and flood. And although now it ranks as only a lesser Welsh peak, in a wild and desolate location, it has the spirit of a fiery volcano still.