As a bard I follow what I call the Way of Awen. Awen is a Welsh word meaning ‘inspiration’. For me, being a bard is not just something ‘weird I do at the weekends’ but it is a my life path. I perform professionally as a storyteller, run workshops, give talks, host events and judge contests – but that is only part of it. That’s the public part – and constitutes only, say, 10% of a bardic life. The other 90% of the time I am journeying both outwardly, to sacred places, places of inspiration and renewal, and inwardly, into the well of imagination – the deep place I have to go into to write, to bring something new into the world. So, when I’m out of sight I’m reading, studying, teaching online, writing, composing, rehearsing, relaxing, socialising & remembering to eat, sleep and play!
Recently I secured a contract for my new non-fiction book The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, and as part of the process of writing it, I am keeping a journal. My thoughts and feelings go initially into an actual physical journal which I can take with me on field trips, as below (I know you can use a laptop, but I prefer pen and paper when I’m in nature). This blog will give me a chance to share something of ‘the journey of the bard’ along the way. A journal is, as the name suggests, the perfect place to record a journey. Journey, of course, is originally a French word: ‘One journey meant one journée, a full day’s march, perhaps thirty miles.’ (Sahara, Marc de Villiers) Every day we live, we go a little bit further along our journey, even if we don’t physically move out of the house! Much of my writing here is based upon actual trips to places, either as part of my research or as part of my life as a working bard: gigs, talks, events. I hope you find it, at least, mildly distracting – and if it inspires you to visit these places, find your own ‘awen-zones’, or even walk the Way of Awen yourself it would have served some good.
A New Awe
The Way of Awen is about seeing the nascent wonder of the world, the miracle of every moment. It is Blake’s opened doors of perception – when everything is shown as it truly is, infinite. Truly, awe is at the heart of awen.
Sunday 1st June, 2008, Brownsea Island
Here on Brownsea Island – on the south coast of England – in the second largest natural harbour in the world I begin my book on the Way of Awen. It feels like a good place to start: Baden-Powell sowed the seeds of his international youth movement here, and there’s perhaps something of the ‘bad boy made good’ through rites-of-passage in Gwion Bach, the originally hoody! One could imagine him as a hoody these days, a ‘menace to society’ to a master bard via his journey to Deganwy. He has a long way to go before he can call himself a bard. He may have spent a year stirring the cauldron but the hard work that makes a boy into a bard is about to begin. He has scalded his fingers in the three drops splashed on his hand (like the three rays of awen) and imbibed the potion of inspiration meant for Afagddu – he’s had the ‘overdose’ of awen, which has released his potential, but now he has to fulfil it. First, he has to escape the wrath of Ceridwen: he has split her cauldron in two! (a kind of Caesarean; the waters have broken – but he is not yet ‘twice-born’). Realising he’s in hot water he hightails it out of there in the form of a hare, thanks to the power of shapechanging he has gained from the potion: the druidic gift of fith-fath. The chase is on!
The Changing Man
The way of awen is about the ability to change. All real journeys change you. If you are no different from when you set out then no real journey has been undertaken. For Gwion to become Taliesin he must undergo the journey of the bard or he remains simply Gwion. The process began for him with the seemingly monotonous hard work of cauldron stirring (symbolic of the sexual act – Gwion’s spoon a wooden phallus; Ceridwen’s cauldron her labia/womb – leading, eventually, to the ec-stasis of orgasm?). he had to put in the graft, in the hours and elbow grease. Such rhythmic activity can be trance-inducing. Watching the spoon turn and turn, hypnotic (love spoons are a traditional gift in Wales to a sweetheart). A spoon is not dissimilar to the shaman’s beater, as well. It would alter Gwion’s hyperactive adolescent brainwaves from alpha to theta – to a state of mind conducive to making lateral leaps, from hare to salmon, salmon to tiny bird, to grain of wheat: meta-state metamorphoses. Gwion must become the changing man.
(While I wrote this, one of the wandering peacocks which had been eyeing my vegetarian Sunday roast leapt up onto the table and took at a greedy stab at my pie with its beak – plunging it right in! This impertinent bird could be seen as a kind of Gwion – who gobbles up the drops of awen meant for disadvantaged Afaggdu – but the truth was the bird wasn’t a peacock; it was a pea-hen! It seems the filching of a man’s ‘chips’ is endemic to the female, whichever the species!)
Monday, 2nd June, Isle of Purbeck
Here at Burnbake, on the morning after the Wessex Gathering I prepare to take to the road. Last night I ran the bardic cabaret around the campfire, which went well. It’s always a popular night – everyone’s chance to shine. I summoned some bonhomie from somewhere and played the congenial host, but in truth after my day out on Brownsea Island I was in a better mood than when I had left the camp – wearied out by being around people. I started the cabaret by invoking both the awen and Taliesin, with my ‘Song of Taliesin’ – to inspire the performers and audience. It all begins with Penbeirdd. It is his shining example, quite literally, which inspires all on the Bardic Path. He walks by our side – all the way to Deganwy.
(from here, on the south coast of England, to North Wales, it’s a winding 255 miles – but it’s the spiritual and transformational distance which is the most significant).
First we need the alacrity of the hare – to flee ‘Ceridwen’s wrath’. As I sped off on my bike yesterday I felt like Gwion the hare. It was an exhilarating feeling. Sometimes it’s the best thing to do: if a situation doesn’t agree with you, just leave. No point enduring it, for the sake of it. (or exhaust ourselves trying to confront it, change it, etc). We often put up with too much – feeling it’s our lot to grin and bear it – our masochistic culture. As Brit’s we don’t like to complain. Make a fuss. Cause a scene. So we suffer in silence. Stew. Stagnate.
So with Gwion the Hare’s speediness, it is time for me to strike camp and hit the road – hightail it out of here, jinking to confuse my ‘pursuers’, non-literal, right-brained leaps of logic. Hare-brained.
Stopped off at Badbury Rings on way home – a fairy place, full of deep peace, the consoling green of trees, everything fecund, heavy with summer… After the hustle and bustle of a public event it is essential to ground yourself and recharge the bardic batteries. Replenish the cauldron. Before speech, silence. After speech, silence. Return to the sacred silence. Let the buzz of voices, of personalities and opinions, fade away, until you can hear yourself think again.
9 June 2008
I catch the silhouette of a heron flapping its way across the fading glory of sunset
12 June 2008
Awen is universal – which is not surprising since it is ‘flowing spirit’. One thing it is similar to is Grace – possibly not the first definition of the noun (‘unmerited divine assistance given to human beings for their regeneration or santification’), although there’s elements of that – but certainly the second (‘a state of being pleasing to God’); and also ‘a charming trait or accomplishment.’ When one performs and the awen is with you, it feels like a state of grace – it comes through when we act gracefully and at the same time makes us act so. John O’Donohue, in his book Divine Beauty said ‘real presence is natural’. When we shine we are fully ourselves – the soul-light pours out of every pore. And yet, however desirable, its ways and appearances are mysterious: ‘No one set the limits on the flow of grace. Its presence and force remain immeasurable and unpredictable.’ It comes and it goes. Sometimes it is indisputably with us – when we are ‘on fire’. Sometimes, it is not. We ‘die on our feet’. All we can do is make ourselves willing channels. As Shakespeare said: ‘the readiness is all.’ I call this state ‘creative preparedness’. We create the frame for it to manifest – we become the field of potential.
14 June, Flag Fen
I sit by the Mere at Flag Fen. It is a sunny afternoon. I hear the conversation of birds, the fen winds soughing through the reeds in the lake, the willows on the shore. Clouds move with stately grace across the sky like ocean liners leaving port. Ripples undulate across the surface, giving the illusion it is going somewhere – busy about its business – when in fact it is staying put, protecting the remains of the ritual island and causeway beneath it. Stillness. Peace. Bliss. It is good to have arrived.
I’m here at this Bronze Age ritual centre to host the inaugural eisteddfod to find the Chief Bard of the Fens, organised by Jody Copestake and the Ancient Muse team. It was an honour to have been asked. Previously I have hosted the Lammas Games Eisteddfod and been involved in the Bardic Chair of Caer Badon in my home city of Bath. Bardic Chairs are springing up all over Britain. Next month there’s one scheduled in my old home town of Northampton, just down the road from here – in my old haunt of Delapre Abbey. The area around Flag Fen was the stomping ground of so-called peasant poet, John Clare, one of my literary heroes. I made a pilgrimage to his grave in nearby Helpstone in 1992, the year of his bicentenary, and took part in poetry readings around Northampton in his honour (Clare was to spend the last quarter of a century of his life there, incarcerated in Northampton County Hospital and Lunatic Asylum. On day-release he would wander the town and hand out poems to passers-by, written on the hoof and lost forever). In Helpstone graveyard Clare’s modest memorial bears the inscription: ‘Poets are born and not made’, but the last letter is worn away by the centuries and so it seems to read, ‘Poets are born and not mad’…And yet it seems to come with the territory. To want to be a poet is perhaps a sign of madness. There’s at least a couple of places in Wales, where, if you hazard to spend a night you could end up ‘dead, mad or poet’. Well, having climbed Cader Idris and made pilgrimage to Bedd Taliesin half a dozen times by now, I must have come down a ‘dead mad poet’!
In my introduction to the contest I suggested Clare should be made Honorary Chief Bard of the Fens. This would be a respectful gesture, for Clare was the Fens poet-of-place par excellence. He witnessed the Enclosures Act first-hand and was able to sing its subtle beauty with far more authenticity and intimate knowledge than many of the Romantic poets on their high horses – for he worked on the land as a labourer; his hands and feet knew it. Psycho-geopgrapher Iain Sinclair and East Anglian storyteller Hugh Lupton (with Chris Wood) have honoured the poet in their own distinctive ways, and I featured Clare in my first (and still unpublished novel), The Ghost Tree, written 1992-1994. One of my first published poems was about Clare in a local anthology of Northampton Poets. Knowing this bard of quiet beauty on my doorstep inspired me as a young poet, setting out on my own journey.
…I believe (the way of awen) is about living in the flow all of the time. When we’re not – that’s when it goes wrong. This current book deal came about because I was ‘in the flow’. It all fell into place – though not without a little nudging. The Way of Awen is not about just ‘going with the flow’ – it is about knowing the flow. Being proactive, rather than reactive. About hooking into the current of life and responding to its vibrations, its variations, a spider on the web of life!
A moor-hen just flapped madly through my legs and shot out onto the lake in a flurry of wings and white water: Awen!
The WoA is about finding inspiration in unexpected places! It is the craft of inspiration – not waiting for it, but seeking it in every moment, fully present. Living life as though one is a character in a tale from the Mabinogion, journeying through a landscape of vivid symbolism. It could be called lucid living, akin to when we know we are dreaming – being fully conscious of being alive. In the moment. In the Awen.
Later, by the fire in the roundhouse
It begins in fire and shadow… Afaggdu and Creirwy… Utter darkness and fair face… The primal darkness and the primal spark… I write these words by firelight in a Bronze Age-style round house at Flag Fen. I enjoy the fruits of my efforts: a bed earnt by my bardic efforts, a fire built by my own hands. The grey matter of thought placed, twig upon twig, stick upon stick, branch upon branch, until the vital spark occurs. The spark at the kindling is akin to the Divine Spark.
The fire around which the people gathered to keep the night at bay, the day’s work done. The storyteller’s fire. Ancient and timeless.
In the Taliesin story fire is fundamental. First there is the cauldron in the iron house – heated and escaped from by the chthonic deity, Tegid Foel and his giantess wife.
Strange and awkward – the embarrassing relatives. They stick out in the Taliesin tale – not quite fitting in with the rest of the narrative, Tom Bombadils. What does it mean? We’ll return to those later…
And then there’s the fire that cooks the potion of inspiration. Stoked by Morda the ancient of days, and stirred by Gwion the little boy. For a year and a day. Imagine the dedication. The tedium. The trance-inducing monotony that leads to a flash of inspiration. Its like any long-term project that you have to keep chipping away at, any reward a long way off. You need staying power. The journey, not the destination. Process, not goal. Attention to detail along the way. Of course, fire is the element of transformation, of quickening. We all get a chance to shine.
I went to say hello to my neighbours in the other Bronze Age roundhouse – a small group of family and friends – and one of them turned out to be Robin Herne, whom I didn’t know but had heard of. We had a pleasant evening, chatting by their fire and they were most hospitable, offering me a welcome vegetarian alternative to the BBQ organised for those on site. I returned the favour later with some Guiness after the session in the large, less smokier Iron Age roundhouse. I thought there was something special about the man, a spark in his eye, for the next day Robin was to win the Eisteddfod, as judged by Bobcat, Ben Haggarty, Albion Conclave’s Stefan Allen and a Flag Fen representative – the Awen was with him! It needed to have been – for it was a tough contest, the standard was high, and the day went well. Yet I had a long ride home, and the heavens opened as I left. Fortunately, after a pitstop in Northampton at my Mum’s, the skies cleared and the rest of the ride home, over the Cotswolds, was pleasant as I raced the sun into the West.
Solstice Madness in the West Country
Very full-on solstice few days, typical of the season. Midsummer madness! Everything intensifies around these festivals, and the full moon didn’t help.
19th Book launch in Glastonbury at the Cat & Cauldron (kept waiting, but only because it was a pleasant atmosphere – Trevor wanted to give folk plenty of time to mingle…but it didn’t help me to relax. I found it difficult to enjoy until afterwards). A meal afterwards in The Hawthorn, courtesy of Trevor and Liz, which was nice of them.
21st-22nd: Alice in Wonderland show at Tyntesfield, National Trust – Sat & Sun. 4 20 min sets: White Rabbits, Red Queens, Mad Hatters, Terrible Twins. Fearsome Beasts. All the way to Bristol and back, then back to Bristol in the evening. (Picked bike up at 4pm from Croscombe Mill Garage). Cosmic Acoustica gig, Bristol – Oisin and Niamh, and Dragon Dance, which went very well. It was worth the effort of getting there – a magical, awen filled evening of beautiful music and poetry. An excellent kora player, a good singer-songwriter and a spectacular performance poet called Analiese, whom I connected with, already we didn’t seem to get off to a good start. When I arrived there in my bike leathers, she was by the door – turned, and exclaimed ‘Oh god!’ The heavens opened in the middle of the evening, and the sky flashed with lightning. It was indeed, a dark and stormy night…Atmospheric, but I had to ride back in the storm. Not fun. Could hardly see. Had to ride almost by intuition. If I had gone with the flow it would’ve been easier to stay over in Bristol. Exhausted the next morning but had to go in – it was touch and go whether it was going to happen or not, because of the dodgy weather. Was praying for a call to say it was cancelled, but no such luck. Had to drag my sorry bones out of bed (so wanted/needed a lie-in that morning) and get to Tyntesfield. It was actually a pleasant day. Breezy, but sunny. And had punters! Not loads, but enough to make it seem worthwhile. Did six slots in the end (to make up for the two missed yesterday due to lack of audience). Felt like the white rabbit racing back and forth: ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’
23rd: We said farewell, and I returned to Bath and finished my OU marking. It was a day to tie up loose ends before I headed for the mountains.
24th: Freedom! I spent the morning packing, and was off by around 1pm. I was prepared for the long haul. The weather stayed kind and got to Corwen by just before 7pm, after a couple of stops on the way. It was a nice ride up. Traffic flowed okay and bike ran sweet.
Off to the mountains…!
I have embarked upon my journey to Deganwy – and I’m nearly there! I set off from Bath yesterday – relieved at finishing my duties and commitments – and had a good run in the sun up to Corwen, right in the Welsh heartland with its magnificent statue of Owain Glyndwr seeing off the English. This charming place was the adopted home of my literary hero, John Cowper Powys, who rendered his own vast version of the historical legend. Stopped to pick up some supplies and called Kirsten to let her know I was nearly there. Didn’t reckon on the obscurity of the location and the really steep lane to get there! Eventually found Kirsten’s place – Hafotty Gelynen – a smallholding she’s staying at near Maerdy, after one wrong turn and several steep tracks. It was great to see a friendly face at the end of the track, waving as she opened the farm gate. Last time I saw Kirsten was in London, I think. She’d organised a bardic workshop for me at Treadwell’s, Covent Garden. And now I’m working on a new bardic book. Finally I can stop. It’s been relentless until now. Last night was lovely sharing stories, songs and poems over a bottle of organic mead from Glastonbury. Kirsten cooked the food over a campfire, despite the intermittent rain (using vegetables picked fresh from their poly-tunnel) and we sat outside, enjoying the view until the rain had other ideas. Then she brought the fire inside, using a shovel to transport the logs, practical woman! And we got cosy by the burner. So satisfying, having a real fire. It’s so conducive to camaraderie, conversation and contentment. The fire of awen crackled and glowed. Kirsten sang a spine-tingling version of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. I recited my version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ and my own poem ‘Heartwood’. Midnight came, eyelids drooped and I retired to my caravan, armed with fleeces and blankets. Its great to wake up in Wales. To open the double caravan door and be greeted by a vista of vale and mountain, rain-washed colours subdued, subtle and soothing.
As we had watched the snakes of flame we talked about serpents: Kirsten was going to have a Celtic snake tattoo to mark her move to Wales. I mentioned Lydney, the healing temple dedicated to the apparently unique Celtic God Nodens – dramatically situated on a wooded headland overlooking the Severn (several hound icons were found there – an interesting Ceridwen overlap). We agreed it would be good to spend a night there, sacred dreaming. Lydney is akin to Epiduaros in usage, Asklepios the Greek Nodens – associated with snakes: his caduceus still a symbol of medicine to this day. Interestingly it is also associated with Hermes, who held a rod – sometimes depicted with snakes and wings. Thoth: Hermes: Mercury – all brothers of Taliesin, I think. The penbeirdd is part of the same lineage, if not the identical archetype/deity/energy. The spirit of inspiration, of eloquence and communication, that ‘enters’ people so their words flow – like the waters of Llyn Geironydd, Lake Silvertongue, which I plan to visit.
Hermes’ rod, Aesculapius’ caduceus … healing words.
Dames said the ancient Welsh believed if a white snake was eaten all the tongues of animals would be understood. There is a Taliesin-type story about a boy who has a dream about a ‘green-garlanded god’ and receives the ‘hawk tongue’, the bardic gift – and perhaps a double-edged one, like the Tongue that Cannot Lie which Thomas the Rhymer received from the Queen of Elfland.
Llyn Geironydd, 25th June
I sit on the base of the stone erected for the Chief Bard of the West, by the glittering shores of Lake Language. Can’t believe I’m here – it was quite a journey! The roads here from Trefiw were very narrow, steep and slippery. Gravel and rain – the biker’s nightmare! And it’s not the easiest of places to find. There’s a dearth of signage, as though the locals want to keep it for themselves. I initially ended up at Trafnant, but I was going in the right direction. Always trust your instincts! If yesterday was like being a hare, hightailing it to the hills, then today has been like being a salmon – riding in the rain, winding my way along the serpentine roads, which shadow the water courses, returning upstream, higher and higher, against all odds, back to the source – to Taliesin’s birthplace. I’m home!
In Michael Dames’ Taliesin’s Travels (Heart of Albion Press 2006 – coming out after I had conceived of this book – one of those ‘in the aether’ things), which is superb for following the ‘Taliesin trail’ he writes: ‘He arrived at Llyn Geironydd entirely drained and literally speechless.’ This is how I feel after a very demanding first half of the year: book launches, gigs, eisteddfod, courses, making a living and dealing with death. I am ready to have some time off the wheel, some time away from the crowd, sometime for myself. Time to replenish the cauldron.
Llyn Geironydd is said to be the birthplace of the 6th Century Welsh bard, Taliesin. At one end stands an austere monument erected by Lord Willoughby in 17850 to the ‘Chief of the Bards. The remote lake was also the site of the poet Gwilym Cowlyd’s annual ‘Arwest’ – a cultural festival, ‘less Anglicised’ and formal than the eisteddfod. Held annually until 1927. The Taliesin Festival has been held more recently. I was invited last year to perform in the ritual drama of Taliesin and Ceridwen by the poet Gwdihw (‘little owl’) but was prevented due to the floods of Summer 2007.
…A lake filled with silence. From this silence everything comes. This is where the Awen is born. First comes not the Word – but the Silence. The Taw. It is wonderful to listen to the gentle sounds of the lake, the trees, the wind. Peace is sacred. There is much to much noise in the world. White noise. Stopping us thinking straight. Unlike pink noise – calming and conducive to lucid thoughts, to deep wisdom. O, to spend a season here – to have a house here, on the shores of Llyn Geironydd (gay-ree-on-ith). To be plugged into this source. Hydro-powered Awen! Listening to the sacred silence.
I arrived in Conwy in glorious sunshine and so decided to ‘make hay’ and headed for the castle of King Maelgwyn. It concluded my journey to Deganwy rather prematurely! But it was worth it (and in hindsight, a wise decision, as the weather turned for the worst for the rest of the week). It was absolutely stunning on top – spectacular views over the Conwy estuary and the sea towards Anglesey. I wasn’t expecting it to be so beautiful. Maelgwyn’s fortress always looked so forbidding in the photos, and maybe its just the associations: a stern ruler. Taliesin arriving in winter, a frosty reception. The scariest eisteddfod. Apparently, Maelgwyn would force bards (poets and harpers) to swim across the Conwy, presumably to cut the wheat from the chaff or to prove his power (an Alan Sugar of his day, making his wannabe apprentice’s jump through hoops) – only the poets could perform because it would be in their heads, whileas the harpers’ instruments would be ruined! Professional sabotage!
The only way to the castle now was via a housing estate which crowds its flanks (what would Maelgwyn have made of this suburbia?). Maybe there’s a more direct route but it alludes me (another non-signed ancient monument). Place names like Castell Close give me clues. I parked my bike somewhat incongruously in amid the bungalows and took the footpath between them into the field. And there it was! I instinctively sat on rounded stone protruding from the nearest hillock rather than head straight there. I needed a moment to prepare myself, like Taliesin waiting to enter Maelgwyn’s court – it felt right to wait. On the other side the two hills (one rounded, one rocky – feminine and masculine?) I found the ruins of the gatehouse, at least the remains of one from the 13th century according to an inscribed sign: proof! This is from later than the Taliesin tale’s setting if not composition – contemporary with Edward Ironshanks’ ring of iron – but the site was probably in use for centuries (Conwy Castle was in military use until the 1700s). it holds such a strategic position, overlooking the Conwy and surrounding landscape. Standing upon top of this ‘Amon Hen’ one certainly feels like the King of the Castle – lord of all one surveys. It has a resonance of temporal power, of saturnine male energy – the dark father archetype. Taliesin as Luke Skywalker, Maelgwyn as Darth Vader here in this ‘Cloud City’: ‘Yes, (heavy breathing), I am your step-uncle!’ On the summit of the ‘male’ hill there’s a kind of dungeon – an open air, steep sided pit on the top. I spotted a rotting sheep carcase down there. One could easily imagine Elphin incarcerated there – in silver chains because he was the royal nephew after all. Maelgwyn is the stone king, par excellence – he rules ‘the world’ from his stern fortress crag, a fastness of Cambrian rock.
I will set out on foot,
To the gate I will come,
I will enter the hall,
My song I will sing,
My verse I will proclaim,
And the king’s bards I will cast down.
In the presence of the Chief,
Demands I will make,
And chains I will break –*
Elffin will be set at liberty.
Taliesin, ‘Journey to Deganwy’
Taliesin’s famous journey – undertaken at the age of thirteen – was with one prime purpose: the vindication and emancipation of Elffin, which could be seen as a metaphor for the freeing of spirit (Elffin/Elphin/Elf/Fairy/Fey – otherworldly energy). Liberty from the bonds of Maelgwyn – from matter. It is also his defining moment – his gorsedd of efficiency, as Morgannwg would put it. This is when he proves himself as a bard, against Maelgwyn’s best – and wins the Chair of Deganwy. Interestingly, in the above poem, it mentions the bloodshed of Arthur’s battle – at Badon (Caer Badon: Bath). Taliesin has fled from here, from the wanton slaughter, like Merlin, into the hills. I have ‘fled’ from Bath too! From the pell-mell of life. Weary, bardic batteries worn low. I would love to live up here, in the mountains, where you can feel the dragon in the land, and see it!
Blake wrote of the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ and railed against any form of enslavement. His work celebrates the emancipation of the imagination. We all need to find freedom from the bonds of matter, from the treadmill of work. Only Spirit can set us free, can completely fulfil us – for with matter, we always want more. There’s never ‘enough’. We have to find our Source, like Blake, from ‘Another Sun’.
Orme’s Head to Capel Currig
‘I seek what is lost,’
Taliesin, The Chair of Deganwy
Made it to Capel Curig – finally out of the rain. Everything is soaked. Even this journal got damp! And all my clothes inside the tail-bag! Thank goodness for the drying room! Now I have a cup of tea, some Welsh cakes in my and a lounge. Guess rain is to be expected in Wales, especially Snowdonia – but this monsoon has come suddenly. After waking up to rain pattering on my tent it cleared up, but I decided to go, thank goodness! Conwy Touring Park wasn’t that atmospheric (an old quarry?). The rules stipulated ‘no groups of bikers; only couples and families’, so I don’t know why they let me in then!
This morning I went to Orme’s Head – rode around some of it on the Marine Drive, then visited the summit. Almost immediately the weather turned for the worse. So I had some lunch at the ‘Captain’s Table’ with the pensioners – the summit-restaurant had the ambience of a kind of Valhalla for OAPs. Awful muzak and kitsch Fifties décor. Aborted my full loop of the Orme and scarpered down the hill in the lashing rain to a town, where I took shelter in a pleasant coffee shop. Served by a nice local lass with blonde hair who made me think of Eurgain – Maelgwyn’s daughter – whose name means ‘bright’, ‘gold,’ ‘gloriously radiant’ (Taliesin’s female equivalent, says Dames). I decided to visit Bryn Euryn (‘little gold coin, gold jewel, darling’) which seems etymologically connected to Eurgain. This was a revelation – showing a different aspect of Maelgwyn (like Olwen – the flower-maiden daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden, the father-in-law from Annwn). On one level Maelgwyn’s bright, golden daughter is literally that: his monetary wealth. This is the prize the bard who convinces Maelgwyn of his merit – Maelgwyn a kind of Dark Age Alan Sugar to Taliesin’s bardic apprentice. But shining-browed Taliesin chooses to be ‘fired’. He wins the contest but does not seek the hand of Eurgain (your-gain?). Elidyr wins it instead. If Eurgain is symbolic of fortune (the Goddess Fortuna?, Lady Luck), then Taliesin’s choice shows he knows what true wealth is to the authentic bard – not Maelgwyn’s bright-gold, but the Way of Awen. He turns his back on worldly riches. Only to the Muse-Goddess does he belong.
Eurgain it is said:
‘set the candle to the wild birds to show her lover the way to Wales’
An amazing, arresting image – echoing the enchanted birds of Rhiannon, and perhaps seen in the flame-coloured red kites that have come back to the valleys of Wales.
It seems Maelgwyn’s prophesised death is connected to that which he hoards and lusts after:
‘A most strange creature will come from the sea marsh of Rhianedd.
As a punishment of iniquity on Maelgwyn Gwynedd;
His hair, his teeth, and his eyes being as gold,
And this will bring destruction upon Maelgwyn Gwynedd.’
As in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, gold is eventually the downfall of all men who crave power and immortality. This prophecy might be referring to Y Fad Felen, the yellow plague which broke out in 547 AD across Wales.
Visited Caer Eurgain in the pouring rain – meant to be connected to Taliesin, but this seems spurious fancy. Locals refer to it as Derthin, the Bear Fort…Certainly felt surly, brooding, massive shoulders hunched against the rain. If the bear-bard was here, he was hibernating.
Pennies from Heaven…The relentless rain has made me stop and take stock – as I hung my clothes and biker accoutrements to dry. Warmth, shelter, peace, a warm drink, hot food, a soft bed – these are true wealth. I succeeded in my quest – I made it Deganwy – and, so far, I have lived to tell the tale…
(earlier I had a potentially nasty confrontation with a van as I tried to make my way up the ridiculously steep roads to the obscure YHA. The van appeared suddenly around a blind bend. I was only going about 20 miles an hour and I’m always careful on country roads, slowing right down if I can’t see what’s around the corner. A combination of gravel, rain, narrow road and fatigue made me take a spill – the bike nearly went under the front wheel of a white van which had come hammering around the corner. It stopped … just in time. I was undamaged – thanks to my protective gear – and the bike seemed okay. It started up again. The guys helped me back on and where apologetic. Relieved, I rode off. Later I discovered the front headlamp was cracked but I mended it with some wire and black tape – adequate to get me home).
I discovered to my annoyance it wasn’t even the right road (the YHA had an absence of signage). When I eventually found the right road, the way got steeper and steeper until, beaten, I had to stop the bike and walked up the hill, to scout ahead. Nothing in sight. I asked a local woman, who pointed ahead…up and up. The YHA was a white speck on the mountain side. No chance, not on my jinny, loaded with gear. I gave up and headed for Conwy YHA. It was full up! I had a couple of cups of tea until 5pm, when I rang to Capel Curig, the next nearest hostel, to check there was a bed. And then, I set off, thru the driving rain…
I had wanted to visit the ‘Bard’s Stone’ the next morning, but nature and circumstance had other ideas.
The Way of Awen can be hard…But H Rider Haggard said: ‘There is no journey upon this earth a man may not make if he sets his heart to it.’
There’s some serendipity here though – Capel Currig was renowned for its harp-making up until the 17th Century. The village of the bards, hail!
After I had dried out, eaten, rested, settled in I went to the local pub to enjoy their open fire, real ales and Welsh whiskey – reading my enchanting De Lint novel, The Little Country, while gazing out at the flood waters…(from the heavy rains earlier –water always finds the quickest path).
I’m sitting in the caravan at Keith and Annie’s place, a small farm cottage in the rugged backcountry above Porthmadog, slowly waking up after a lovely night of food, fire and conversation. The awen manifests in such moments – in lively discussions between friends. Points of view expressed like synapses firing. In the love felt between old friends, kindly tolerant of each others’ foibles and quirks. It was great to get here and get warm and dry again after another near drubbing. The rain came again yesterday – instead of going up the mountain (toyed with climbing Snowdon) instead I went with the flow, revisiting Llyn Geironydd (to walk around it) and then Swallow Falls – this is the way of awen too. Rather than resisting the water – going with it. Make your enemy your friend. Attune to its element. Learn from it. Well, I think I have learned the lesson of rain now!
Bikes and Bards in Bala
Had a good run from Porthmadog to Bala via Dolgellau road and Trawsfynydd, which turns out to be a favourite blat-track for bikers, as I discovered upon arriving in the town: there were dozens of bikers there congregating outside a couple of the cafes on the high street. I had stumbled into a weekly bike-meet. I parked my humble 125 amidst the ranks of big boys bikes, and went to get myself a baguette and a tea. I didn’t get chatting to any of the bikers. Sure some of them were fine, but I dislike the snobbish machismo and clan mentality in the biking fraternity – the size of your penis seems to depend on the cc and make of your machine. Most of them seem middle-aged blue collar types, and the odd wannabe rebel executive. Not much edginess or bohemia really. Just everyone in their biker bling, their uniform of rebellion. Pretty harmless really. The wild ones grew old, had families, settled down. Now they have family estates or people carriers and bring their bikes out at weekends. To counter that, you have a nice camaraderie on the road – most nod or wave (can you imagine every driver doing that?). Some pull over, if they see you by the ride side apparently struggling (especially if you have L plates). A guy on a blue Yamaha Fazer pulled up by me on the windy Trawsfynydd road as we waited for some roadwork lights to change. We got chatting briefly – instantly friendly. I asked him where he was heading and he said: ‘Just following my wheels’, and roared off. Cool.
Anyway, it made an interesting atmosphere for it was Eisteddfod Proclamation day in Bala. Families were lining the High Street in expectation of the procession. I asked an old lady who explained it all, pleased to see my interest. A newspaper stand said: ‘New Bala UFO spotted’. Bikers, druids and aliens. It was the silly season alright! It was great to watch the procession when it finally passed – local VIPs, community groups, arch-druids in gold regalia, banner-carriers, a sword-bearer, a woman carrying the Hirlas Horn, another the Blodeuged, and the battalions of bards, ovates and druids in their blue, green and white. It was a real community affair, with the spectators people-spotting as much as anything, the locals enjoying it with a mixture of pride and good humour. This wasn’t a fringe thing – but the heartblood of the community, of the nation.
The ceremony was all in Welsh, of course, which was lovely to hear – especially the singing (there was also some beautiful harp-playing as the procession spiralled inwards to the gorsedd circle, taking their places). I spoke to Keith this morning about how singing spontaneously is a way of giving praise. I felt it at Tyn Llwyn (when I felt instinctively like chanting the awen when confronted with the stunning view – realising this is how the famous singing in Wales must have originated, as a natural response to the landscape) and I saw it at Bala green today, as the ranks of blue, green and white gorsedd members sang around the gorsedd stones. It seemed familiar from over a decade of attending such ceremonies in England – obviously very inspired by the Eisteddfod, itself largely the invention of a fertile mind – Iolo Morgannwg’s.
I sit looking towards Bala and its lake now – in a lovely little wooden seat, which I’ve had to ‘contest’ with a couple of local ‘fairies/pixies!, kids belonging to a large family gathering nearby (who have a marquee set up, a couple of BBQs and mean business!) interesting that I got them talking about fairies (because they were acting like a couple of cheeky ones) because the lake is said to be frequented by various kinds: including Plant Annwn (Children of the Deep) and the eponymous Y Twlywth Teg (possibly connected to Bala/Llyn Tegid’s own Tegid Foel). Tegid Foel is said to be the father of Taliesin and he has his own story-thread – Chieftain of Penllyn (where Gronw comes from, rival of Llew Llaw Gyffes for the love of Blodeuwedd) the five parishes around the shore of the eponymous lake. Apparently Tegid continues to dwell with his supernatural bride in the submerged ‘temple city’ below Bala’s glittering surface. It too has a legend about a well that was negligently forgotten to be covered: ‘one evening the task was overlooked’. Thus, the spring, Ffynnon Gawr, still is believed to flow below the lake like the Well of Segais of Irish legend. Another tale says how a minstrel was told to play at a festival there, but a ‘bird lured him to the hill, where he fell asleep. In the morning he awoke to find Llyn Tegid covering the city’; and, most memorably of all: ‘on the lake’s surface floated his harp’, a haunting image reminiscent of the Bard of Thessaly, Orpheus’ head, floating with his lyre down the Hebron. Fishermen are said to see chimney pots and hear church bells on calm days, or after a thaw. Bala is also said to be the home of a monster, and a lost city! It seems its deep waters provide a dark mirror to people’s fantasies and fears. And yet its pure waters perhaps feed the racial consciousness here – the purest form of Welsh is said to be spoken in Bala. So today’s eisteddfod could not have been more appropriate. Bala’s deep streams inspire many to this day.
(last year I visited Bala for the first time, staying with Rowenna Williams, whose father owns the land through which flows the Stream of the Poisoned Horses, Aber Gwenwen Y Meirch – it was, in fact, a beautiful burn flowing through a wooded vale. I was honoured to be taken to it, and up to its source. I also walked down to where it flowed into the lake. Such places bring the legends alive).
28 June, Llyn Tegid
By the shores of Lake Bala, listening to its endless stories – a bottomless cauldron of myth and legend. Awen is like this deep and broad lake – an endless source of inspiration. It is always there, waiting to be tapped into. One just has to sensitise to it, sit, listen, wait…like a fisherman of words, wait for a line to catch. The Muse to bite. Lady of the Lake, lake maiden, goddess of the subconscious, mistress of dreams. Swifts dart like the shuttle of a loom, creating the warp and weft of lake life. Soothing song of the lake – let it work on your weary body, ease your soul. Hwyll to Taliesin’s father, Tegid Foel, and his ‘sunken city’ (the treasures of the subconscious).
A stone head below the water – ancient and mute. Raise it from the deep. Let it speak. What would it say? Would it talk of Tegid’s lost city, of monsters and lake maidens? How do we discern real dreams from false? Have they arrived to us from between the gate of horn, or ivory?
The lake must be replenished, otherwise it runs dry. It gives freely of itself to the river, while fed by many streams.
Over the last couple of years, while researching my book Lost Islands, I collected tales of ‘lost lands’ around the British Isles, of which there are a plethora. I particularly like the one associated with Cardigan Bay (Seithennin, the drunken steward and Cantre’r Gwaelod). Here is one I stumbled upon at Penmaenmawr: The Tale of the drowned palace
‘When the tide is low take a look over Trwyn-yr-Wylfa and towards the sea. It’s possible to see rocks in the sand. It is believed that these rocks were the foundations of a palace belonging to a wicked prince named Helyg. One day his wickedness was punished and the sea came in drowning his land and palace. Helyg and his family ran for safety to nearby Trwyn-yr-Wylfa.’
From Conwy walk guide pamphlet
29 June, Sunday Aberystwyth
The Way of Awen is, among other things, about going with the flow and I certainly have done that today. Making a slow start at Pen y Bont campsite because of the rain and feeling slightly groggy – a good night’s sleep but one filled with dreams of lake maidens! I wended my way from Bala along the lake, stopping briefly at Llangower at midday, but the rain drove me on and I ploughed on to Machynnleth – over stunning scenery, no doubt, but in the driving rain I could see or appreciate it little. I had to completely focus on the road, although a tune did come to me as I rode, whether original or remembered I could not say. I passed by Cader Idris and made it to Mach, thawing out in a local café over some leek and potato soup. My fave place, The Quarry Café (run by the CAT people) was closed, so I had to go in a real local place – in my dripping bike gear. It was busy and the only space was sharing with a couple of folk. I asked if I could and they nodded. I got chatting with a fellow ‘biker’ – an Israeli girl who was cycling around Britain, which pit my own jaunt into perspective. I wouldn’t want to tackle these hills on pedal power! Refuelled, I made my way to Tre Taliesin – stopping off at the ‘Half way House’, with its hobbity waterwheel, and surely one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Wales – not large, but lovely, right at the divide of the Dyfi. It was easy to imagine a water nymph frolicking in the clear water – moon-pale skin, long white hair flowing over a svelte figure in a green velvet dress. I certainly could as I sat there, eating my cheese baguette and apple! I went on to Bedd Taliesin, paying my respects to the penbeirdd, reciting Dragon Dance in the mist on the mountain side. A hareglow grew from the grave. I felt a sense of stillness and completion. Then I blatted down to Borth, to the realm of Glyndon Garanhir. The waves rolled in – refreshing – but the place has a desultory air, the desolate feel of a seaside resort out of season, even though it’s late June and summer, apparently! Feels like winter! The endless rain is depressing and draining. It would’ve been a sad note to end my trip on – a feeling of flatness, rather than euphoria – so I followed a whim and rode along the winding, hilly coast road to Aberystwyth, which was a pleasant surprise, bathed as it was in sunlight under – finally! – clear blue skies! I parked the bike and walked up to the castle, and stood upon the gorsedd stone. Full circle! I’ve decided to stay the night – rather than slog it back. And visit the National Library tomorrow, and check out a couple of bookshops I’ve spotted. This is awen-town!
Wyrd epiphany in Aberystwyth
Stood on the end of the pier gazing along the sun road, thinking about the second half of the year and all the things I have to do… and about the Way of Awen – and it dawned on me what it actually is. Arriving in Aberystwyth and changing my ‘wyrd’ illustrated it brilliantly. Not just going with the flow, for that shows lack of will, a lack of ambition. It is about living by inspiration. Being spontaneous, in the moment, fully present, fully conscious – not just being blown by the winds of fate, but living consciously. It is just like a performance – rather than worrying what is going to happen next, trusting in the tale and your craft. Let the Awen come through you. If you worry, then you forget, then you stumble. It is about attaining a certain level of grace, of equipoise and equanimity. Living with dignity and wisdom.
Watched the sunset from a promenade bar with a sense of completion. So glad I stated – a gentle, satisfying end to the holiday, rather than a long slog home in the evening. I still have to do that tomorrow, but then I have a Monday mindset – a ‘back to work’ attitude. This is the first day I really felt like I had stopped and relaxed fully. I was overcome with tiredness earlier – it finally hit me, after pushing myself all week. I was too tired to head back yesterday. Besides, it’s not everyday I get to see the sun slide into the sea. This has probably been the first day that’s been possible for a week in Wales. Rainland! Still, I feel I’ve got what I came for. I’ve kickstarted my book. I’ve definitely embarked upon the Way – and gained insights along the way.
Now it’s time to bring them home.
Total mileage of journey to Deganwy: 698 miles – hardly ‘Long Way Down’, but enough for me this week.
1st July Bath
I am back home after a long ride yesterday. Had a good night’s sleep and a hot bath and feel better – although I’m still stiff and it’ll take at least a day to recover. Mind is still ‘groggy’. Shows how tired I was – yesterday wrote ‘Shrewsbury’ on my bike directions instead of ‘Hereford’ and ended doing an 80 mile detour! And so the journey back took two hours longer – 7 hours in total since leaving Aberystwyth, although about an hour of that was taken up with pitstops. Guess I didn’t want to come home, for I was heading back to north Wales!
Now I have to assimilate what I learnt last week, and channel it into the book. I began this journal exactly a month ago, and have had some good experiences to get the Awen flowing. I could use extracts of this in my book, or use it to jumpstart the Awen (as in the Morning Pages exercise). The main thing is to let the Awen flow every day I’m writing it – would be lovely to be based in a cottage by Geironydd – rather than use loads of quotes. I want the text to flow, to come from embodied wisdom. From the heart, not the head.
6 July Bookbarn, Hallatrow
Sitting in the vast ‘raiders of the lost ark’ Bookbarn warehouse – Britain’s ‘largest secondhand book warehouse’ apparently – as the rain lashes down outside. The wild elements rage – and all we have to counter them, to placate these ferocious gods, are countless words. An elephants’ graveyard of books. Pile after pile. Aisle after gloomy aisle. A labyrinth of words. What minotaurs lurk there? Anyone brave enough to enter its endless maze was a possible Theseus. It was the kind of place you could lose your sanity if you took a wrong turning. Were there gibbering bibliophiles wandering these corridors, lost in their search? The odd skeleton of a bookworm? I could imagine doorways to other worlds here – each book a portal. It would make a great setting for a story, as I’ve noted in another notebook last year. How could such an inconsequential thing as a book hope to encompass the world? How can the frailest, most insubstantial of things counter such wild vastness, the unpredictability of creation? A bookshop is a good example of a practical manifestation of the Way of Awen. If one attempted to run through the shelves methodically (difficult when there’s only the vaguest attempt at cataloguing here) it would take forever and a day. Instead, it is best to trust to intuition. Often the first book you lay your hands on is the right one. I came here with the intention of finding a copy of Voss by Patrick White – and I found one, a lovely old ’58 hardback for £3. I used the computer catalogue to see if they had any Charles Williams, for I wouldn’t know where to start – where is there poetry section? It revealed they had a copy of Taliessin Through Logres at a snip for £90! I ordered his Selected Writings instead for a more reasonable but still pricey £12. A lad, possibly the boyfriend of one of the ‘book-muses’ behind the counter had to run the gauntlet to fetch it from the other barn. I waited in the café, enjoying a coffee while writing this. I wonder what other treasures lay undiscovered here? I carefully wrapped my finds and sealed myself into my biker gear. The ‘typhoon’ had eased, but it was still raining. Time to get home with my spoils from this book-Annwn.
Later, looking through Charles Williams’ rich bardic verse, I came across this quote.
But I was Druid-sprung;
I cast my heart in the way;
All the Mercy I called
To give courage to my tongue,
Charles Williams, ‘Taliessin’s Return to Logres’
This is all the committed bard can do – ‘cast your heart in the way’ and hope for the best. We must trust our hearts to the Way, and hope it will guide us through the vicissitudes of life. Ship of Awen, carry me through the storm!