This is another guest post, this time by astrologer Barry Goddard who joined us to dream the land recently. He writes a regular blog, please have a look at http://www.astrotabletalk.blogspot.co.uk
Here’s a wonderful blog by Medwyn McConachy, one of the team of dreamers who wove a song line along the path of the Poet Stone during our Dreaming the Land gathering last week. Profound thoughts, rich words and stunning photographs await!
Before I left my home on Vancouver Island I spoke of my desire to walk the sacred pathways of my ancestors, this last week in Wales found me doing exactly that. In the good company of eight others, our group of nine meandered o’er vale and hill visiting with the old ones in tomb, circle and standing stone. Eric Maddern and Angharad Wynne have been exploring these pathways in the spirit of creating songlines drawn from the Australian definition “a songline is an ancient mythological route that connects sacred places across a landscape.” Eric is a mystic/storyteller/ecowarrior called to the foothills of Snowdonia to create the place he named Cae Mabon, Angharad born on these lands joins him in these mystical journeyings.
Opening to the land and the beings of the land, we explored within and without. Messages flowed from the stones, the rivers, and the ancient landscape, allowing us…
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This is a view across the Lavan sands between Abergwyngregyn on the north Wales mainland and Beaumaris on Anglesey at sunset. For millennia, it was the main route from the mainland to Mona (Anglesey) and accessible only at low tide. Its ancient name, Traeth Lavan or Traeth Wylofain in Welsh, means ‘the sands of weeping’, possibly a reference to the lamentations for the lost settlement and inhabitants of a one time settlement here, which like many places around our coast, was overwhelmed by a rise in sea levels during the sixth century.
It was across these sands, and by ferry across a narrow but deep channel of water at its centre even at low tide, that early Mesolithic hunters and their shamans would have crossed to Mona. Later, the Neolithic tomb builders came and went across here, bringing new ideas about burial chambers and the creation of sacred space, perhaps following discourse with other tomb engineers of the time on the mainland, and across the water in Ireland at the great sites of The Boyne Valley.
Those skilled stone axe makers based at Penmaenmawr on the mainland coast, crossed here to ply their beautifully polished, highly prized stone axes. Later still, the first Druids, the priests of the new Celtic settlers of the Iron Age made their way across the Lavan Sands to meet, and perhaps learn about the dreaming of the holy island of Mona, from the small dark shamans of the native Neolithic communities of the Island. What they found there in terms of sanctity, dreaming and the sanctuary it offered must have been extraordinary, because of all of the places held sacred by the Druids in northern Europe, they chose Mona as their main centre of leaning and teaching base.
It’s rather intriguing to imagine young, hopeful initiates making their way over Bwlch y Ddeufaen, following the songline that we’ll explore on our forthcoming Dreaming the Land: the Poet’s Stone retreat, towards the Lafan sands and beyond to the Druid college at Mona. Perhaps they had shown promise from a young age, perhaps they had been tutored by the Druid priesthood of their own tribes, and when the time was right, set on paths from their home forts scattered across the length and breadth of the British Isles and northern Europe, with basic instructions in the form of songlines (a series of landmarks remembered through story and song), as to how to reach the pass of the two stones, the ancient and sacred pathway through the guardian mountains of Eryri (Snowdonia).
Certainly, the Conwy River, whose name means ‘holy river’ would have been a key landmark for finding the path. We know that what much of what we call the A5 today was a pathway as far back as the Neolithic, and would have been an important route towards Mona and the mountains of Eryri from the mid and southern parts of Britain. This route would likely have have served the tribes of the Cornovi, Coritani, Iceni, Dobuni, Catuvellauni, Trinovantes, Belgae, Atrebates, Regnenses and Canti if not others as well, in their journeys to and from the holy isle and Druid base of Mona.
It is quite likely that the roads used by the later Romans, were already trackways developed thousands of years previously to navigate the easiest routes through the high mountains. Today’s picturesque town of Betws y Coed sits on the confluence of the River Lligwy flowing from the west with the River Conwy flowing north towards its estuary at Conwy. David Hopewell, in his book Roman Roads in North East Wales, proposes that there was a junction here between the trackway that follows the path of the A5 and a route north along the west bank of the Conwy. During Roman times it was used to link the Roman Fort at Bryn y Gefeiliau near Betws y Coed with Canovium, a Roman fort that guarded the important crossing of the Conwy River at Tal-y-Cafn. It is likely that in earlier times, this route would have led both to the important Bronze Age hillfort settlement of Pen y Gaer and to that crossing of the Conwy river.
Those crossing the Conwy at Tal-y-Cafn, heading west would have then followed a path directly towards Maen y Bardd and Bwlch y Ddeufaen and through the mountain pass. Likewise, the Roman road from Bryn y Gefeiliau near Betws y Coed, makes a junction at Tal-y-Cafn. It is likely that the generations of travellers journeying towards Mona during prehistory did much the same, and our young Druid would also have followed this path.
Having followed the western flank of the Conwy north, then turned left to head west at Tal-y-Cafn, our young Druid would have begun a steady ascent until he reached Cae Hun chambered tomb and Maen y Bardd burial chamber, and possibly found a small settlement there of people able to provide some hospitality and simple fare for weary travellers.
These two tombs (and recent archaeological surveys suggest there may have been more that have since been destroyed in the vicinity of Cae’r Hun – which means field of the sleepers or dead), would already have been ancient sites by then, and who knows whether the ancestors of these places would have been honoured by our young Druid. Such Neolithic burial chambers certainly continued to be used to burry the dead right through the Bronze Age. Decorated Beaker pots containing crematory remains from this period are often found buried within the earth mounds which once covered such chambers (but which in most cases have now been eroded away). Evidence now suggests, and archaeologists increasingly agree that the arrival of the Celts to the British Isles during the Iron Age was more ‘peaceful integration’ than invasion as previously believed. It therefore seems possible, that they adopted and honoured the indigenous beliefs of the small indigenous dark people of these lands into their own. After all, the Druids honoured the local spirits of nature, the genius loci of place. It makes sense that they worked with and adopted what they found here; the spirits of place and ancestors that had been sacred to the people of this land for many thousands of years already, although of course, they might have though about them and used quite different rituals and methods to worship them.
It is likely therefore, that our young Druid on his or her way to Mona would have sensed some connection or at least felt moved to honour these ancient burial tombs as places where the ancestor guardians or the ‘old ones’ of these lands lay, and where their spirit was still keenly present. Perhaps our Druid even stopped to ask a blessing on the onward journey along this tract of path from the ancestors-guardians within these tombs.
Less than an hour later, the path would have brought our young Druid to the stone circle of Cylch y Pryfaid, the circle of insects or small creatures. Again, such a sacred place would not have been of our Druid’s time, but it is likely that even a basic training would have involved some knowledge of the purpose of these places to earlier generations of this land; the importance of the various alignments, how to work with the energies of such places at significant points of the year, equinoxes and solstices in particular. Again, we might imagine our young Druid stopping to earth himself in this land, to plant his feet in it and align himself in some way, as preparation for the immense transition and challenge he or she would face in an attempt to gain access to Mona, to be accepted for advanced magical training among the Druid Dreamers of that holy isle.
Eric has been wondering whether the epithet associated with one of the islands of Britain “the island of the strong door” actually relates to Mona. It is very possible, not just in physical terms of how difficult it would have been to navigate the waters and crossing places for those who did not know the tides and currents of the Menai Straits, nor the routes across the Lavan sands, but also the mystical, spiritual and psychic fortifications set up by the Druids to protect that place and the knowledge it contained.
At last, our young Druid would have arrived at the portal stones of Bwlch Y Ddeufaen. Passing between these might have felt like a point of no return, of leaving behind one’s old life, and embracing what challenges the road ahead had in store. Shortly after passing between the stones, the pathway rises to a ridge, at the top of which, the land below and beyond to the north and all of Mona is revealed, right the way to Holy Mountain at its far end. If the tide happened to be out, then the Lavan sand with its route across may have been visible. If not, then the tract of water would have seemed a treacherous barrier.
From this point, the pathway heads downwards into a river valley, or possibly for those in the know, across the contours of Llwytmor Bach towards the top of Aber falls. This tall, powerful waterfall would surely have been a potent and sacred place for our young Druid. Across all of Celtic Britain and Europe, water pools, rivers, great waterfalls and small springs reveal evidence of having been revered and considered holy by the Iron Age Celts. Stone heads or carved stone or occasionally well preserved wooden sculptures of human figures (almost always female) are found placed within water sources by our Celtic ancestors. Many lakes, rivers and bogs too continue to relinquish their secret sacrificial treasure hoards, cast away into water in what seem to be great invocations or pleas to the Celtic gods of water (mostly female according to classical commentators) for grace, intervention or aid. Did our young druid make a special pilgrimage a little way off the marked path to this place, perhaps to honour the goddess of these waters, perhaps to purify himself before attempting to reach Mona, perhaps even to cast his own offering into the tumbling waters?
The walk from Aber Falls to the edge of the Lavan sands crossing point at Abergwyngregyn would have taken our young Druid little more than a couple of hours, and then it would have been a matter of waiting for the tide to part the waters, crossing to the old settlement site which stood amongst the sand until the sixth century. Maybe he or she rested there awhile awaiting the ferry to cross the narrow but deep water channel to the Mona side of the sands. Once across, our Young Druid might have taken a deep breath, gathered courage and prepared to petition the Druids of Mona to part the veil and admit access to one in search of the deeper dreaming, communion with the gods and the great wisdom and magic of this land, at the threshold of the strong door, at the crossing point between the Lavan sands and Mona’s sacred earth, where one journey ended, and another began.
Angharad and Eric will lead a retreat exploring the landscape, dreaming, archaeology and mythology of The Poet’s Stone songline, and the Bwlch y Ddeufaen path towards the Lavan sands and Mona later this month. If you’d like to come along, the four day adventure begins on 16th September. Full details can be found on www.dreamingtheland.com
With thanks to Eric for the great pictures.
Someone once told me that before mankind could read words our minds were attuned to reading landscape, drawing forth from it the layered histories and mythologies invested in it over millennia. I’d like to believe this, and also that in attuning the human brain to forming and deciphering letters, that not all of our ability to read landscape was lost. I’d like to think that something of that skill is still available to us, if only we can cultivate and nurture it, keep an open mind and have faith in the possibility that the earth beneath our feet is still to be engaged with in a profound way.
“The act of imagining or dreaming enables us to offer our own contribution to the landscape’s story, to invest a new layer of meaning within it. This is traditionally the role of dreamers, of sensitives, of artists and writers, but it is open to anyone willing to try.”
Our early hunter-gatherer ancestors must have relied heavily on their ability to read landscape for their very survival. Their understanding and knowledge of the broad and varied terrains travelled to follow wild herds, and the berry and root harvests, must have established an impressive body of lore handed down from generation to generation. Add to this a deeper guidance on how to live in balance within that landscape, so that the tribes could take what they needed to survive, but not too much so as to disrupt the ecosystem and jeopardise future food supplies, and the first teaching stories begin to emerge. Add wonder at the cycle of life to the mix, awe at the changing seasons, daylight, darkness, birth, death and regeneration, and we glimpse the genesis of the first deities. Soon stories become mythologies, chants become songs, and together they become the basis of each tribe’s philosophy. They formed guiding cosmologies, an aid to navigate the inner and outer pathways of the land, to live in harmony with it and to reverence each patch of earth upon which they subsisted during different times of the year. Perhaps this is how that which the Aboriginal nations of Australia call ‘the dreaming’ was formed.
Most of us will have a bond with some childhood landscape. It is usually developed through memories created in that place, of what we learned about it, our associations with it, and the marks we’ve left upon it. My most cherished childhood landscape is the fields and woods around Fachros Farm where my father was raised and where three generations of our family farmed.
The home field and the orchard were places resonant with the touch and toil of my ancestors. As a child, they were magical places to explore, to share with loved cousins my own age, to imagine worlds within these few acres that only we inhabited. Then, in the summer months, the home field was shorn to stubble and golden hay and straw baled. Friends and family would gather to bring in the hay harvest on an old cart that had come with my grandmother upon her marriage, from the farm she was raised, a few miles away over the hill. In the woods that flanked the home fields, my cousins and I carved our initials with penknife blades, alongside those of our parents and grandparents, on the gnarled trunk of a particularly fine oak. Perhaps the impulse to do so was not really that different to the early farmers of the Neolithic who, having settled on a patch of land, left their mark in standing stones, earth enclosures and burial chambers. Just like my cousins and I, these early tribes were finding a way to express connection with land, mark a continuation of ancestral line on the landscape, of leaving a sign that this patch of earth was important. Just like us, they were expressing that they were bound to it in some profound way, that they belonged with it.
“It requires the uniquely human act of imagining to make a bridge into the past, to empathise with those who have gone before and touch a shared experience of human interrelationship with earth, with land and landscape, and ultimately to find our own place within that dreaming.”
From about eight years old I regularly walked hills and mountains with local Rambler and the Welsh Cymdeithas Edward Llwyd organisations. Every stop for a drink or a packed lunch involved the sharing of knowledge about the landscape – and, what delighted me most as a child – a story or legend born of that particular place. Looking back, I can see that these stories, this sharing of knowledge and understanding of the landscape, transformed a walk amongst vast moorland and hill ranges, spectacular mountains and spume whipped coastlines, into something altogether different. It gave me a connection to land, a way of engaging with it in a deep and immersive way. These were keys to getting hold of unfamiliar territory and becoming entwined with it on a molecular level, because that kind of contact has profound effects, physically, emotionally, psychologically.
I headed to university in search of stories and a deeper understanding of mankind’s interaction with landscape, taking a degree in English Literature, specialising in Anglo Saxon, middle English and creative writing, alongside archaeology. It fed me for three years, inspiring me, deepening my knowledge and understanding, informing insights and transforming my relationship with this land. I immersed myself in old stories, great mythological cycles of Britain and learning to read the lumps and bumps, stones and structures that we encounter in our landscapes. I discovered what archaeological findings might suggest about our ancestors’ beliefs, their lives, their interrelationship with nature. It also gave me an appreciation that prehistoric findings alone will never tell us all we want to know. They are at best pointers, co-ordinates that map out a space into which theories and ideas about the lives of our ancestors arise.
An appreciation of stories, folklore and traditions and some knowledge of history and archaeology are great tools to have, but to my mind, there is one even greater. That is an open mind, or perhaps rather an ability and willingness to dream, to be open to whispers, subtle inspiration and hunches; to be silent enough to just be with a patch of land, to let it seep into you, to grasp silver strands of potential stories, fragile as spider webs, and yet, meaningful, impactful.
To do so is to become part of the ‘dreaming’, part of an ancient but almost forgotten heritage of reading, listening and honouring the landscape. Importantly, this act of imagining or dreaming enables us to offer our own contribution to the landscape’s story, to invest a new layer of meaning within it. This is traditionally the role of dreamers, of sensitives, of artists and writers, but it is open to anyone willing to try. This is how we draw the stories from the land so that we can re-story it here in Britain, where the fabric of our native ‘dreaming’ is fragmented and tattered. We cannot ever know all the stores that were born from this landscape, so many are utterly lost to us, but that is not to say that we cannot invest it with more.
If we are to re-story our land, and find deeper connection with it, then with a little help from archaeology, and while honouring the stories we know, there is an absolute need for a little dreaming. It is only through imagination and listening to the landscape and the resonances left by ancestors upon it, that we can plug into the story of human interaction with our wild places and nearby spaces, and flow with the timeless tides of shared human interrelationship and reverence for the land.
When looking at the scant remains of a settlement, or the naked stones of a burial chamber, it can be difficult to appreciate that these places were once vibrant with sense of belonging, tradition and shared memory. That was the context of carving my initials on the oak in Fachros’ woods. With the passage of time of course, such human sensations are utterly lost. My carved initials will become meaningless, and I anonymous in a few generations time. The carvings will become curious marks left for a generation as yet unborn to ponder at. My hope, however, is that if anyone does pause to wonder at them, that they’ll dream and imagine their way towards a story of what happened long ago in a wood by the edge of a field; that they’ll strive to connect with the humanity of the act, not just the text-book historical and archaeological explanation for it. Because it requires the uniquely human act of imagining to make a bridge into the past, to empathise with those who have gone before and touch a shared experience of human interrelationship with earth, with land and landscape, and ultimately to find our own place within that dreaming.
Members of the Dreaming The Land team regularly organise walks, retreats and pilgrimages across some of Britain’s most resonant landscapes with aim of dreaming, re-storying and honouring our ancient places and wild spaces. If you’d like to find out more about the forthcoming pilgrimage across Anglesey, exploring the ‘Druid Isle’ or about the 2015 Dreaming the Land Retreat: The Poet’s Stone (coming up in September) led by Angharad and Eric, please have a look at www.dreamingtheland.com
Cath and I chose the perfect weekend to recce our story-walk across some of the Vale of Glamorgan’s rich Neolithic landscape between Tinkinswood and St Lythian’s burial chambers. The sun shone, there was hardly a cloud in the sky and the air was Easter warm: perfect walking weather. Trouble is, when storytellers get together, we tend to get lost in the stories of the landscape, get drawn off the path by an intriguing wooded paths, ancient ent-like oaks or an enegmatic stones standing alone in a field. But, as anyone whose ever been reliant on an OS map for directions for the first go at a walk will tell you, there’s no room for a lapse in concentration from the marked path!
Walking such landscape is to tread upon a strata of stories as sure as the layers of geology beneath our feet. The stories held in landscape reveal themselves in the names of springs and streams, hills and woods, field names, farm names, the odd earthwork and settlement site, church, standing stone and burial chamber. The challenge is which stories to leave out.
Our walk for Valeways Vale of Glamorgan Walking Festival on 23rd of May is designed for families. We’ve created it in the hope that parents and grandparents will come along and bring the younger family members on a day long walk which will be gentle and interspersed with stops in amazingly potent places for cups of tea from a flask, a piece of cake, a sandwich a tale and a ballad or two.
There’s very little in terms of story material that we can say with any surety is ‘Neolithic’ in origin, though some of the Native Tales of Wales and the Mabinogi may have roots that reach back this far. We’ll share some of those, along with tales of totemic animals and ancestors that archaeologists believe were important to these early farmers that shaped this landscape 6000 years ago. We’ll journey through an odyssey of about three and a half thousand years, from the first agriculturalists to the arrival of Christianity in this landscape. And of course, no such day in such a place would be complete without a few fairy tales, or in this case, stories of the native Tylwyth Teg.
Our walk will be suitable for all ages from about 8 years +, so if you’re able to join us for an enchanting day of walks, stories and songs on the 23rd of May, then please do. It’s completely free, just bring along a packed lunch and maybe a few £ for tea and cake at Dyffryn’s teashop which will be near our start and end point. Cath and I promise that we will have recced the whole route by then, without getting distracted by the beauty of the spring and the stories that spring forth.
Steps, Stones and Bones will soon be promoted on the Valeways Festival site. We’ll meet at Dyffryn Garden’s entrance lodge (just as you turn off the road to Dyffryn’s driveway and car park) at 10.15am. We expect to finish by 4pm, just in time for a cup of tea and a cake at Dyffryn’s tea shop. The whole route is about three and a half miles in length over generally flat to gently sloping terrain across meadows and through woodland, with some walking on country lanes. Hope to see you there!