aka Rescue Dawn: Snowdonia
‘Help, I’ve come on holiday by mistake!’ These words, paraphrasing the classic Withnail & I, were ringing around my head as I prepared to leave Cae Mabon, Eric Maddern’s inspiring eco-retreat centre in Snowdonia. Having been up for the May Day weekend, I wanted to go back and experience the place some more. I was planning to go up first week in August for one of the open weeks, but circumstances prevented me. So, instead – unwisely as it turned out – I decided to go up the following week. A deep ecology group called Green Spirit were running what they optimistically called a ‘wild week in Wales’. I got the impression it was meant to be open to all and a chilled out, co-created thing, with everyone pitching in ingredients to the catering and the ‘programme’, so I understood from the blurb:
‘People who attend are invited to bring something they can share, like a workshop, stories, songs, favourite recipes, musical instruments…Ideas and suggestions are welcome.’
It turned out somewhat differently.
Feeling a bit ‘iffy’ on Monday I delayed coming up rather than ‘risk giving them all swine flu’ as I explained to Hilary, the organiser, over the phone. Perhaps I should have listened to my body and misgivings – and not gone at all – for I had a lot to get on with. But I felt summer was slipping by without me making the most of it, so I decided to cease my slothful whimperings and head for the hills. I woke up Tuesday morning, feeling full of beans, and did just that. It was long but lovely ride up in the sun, on what turned out to be the best day of the week. I took the Welsh Marches route and the last section of my journey through the Llanberis Pass was spectacular. After inadvertently taken a wrong turning and ending up on the first part of the actual Llanberis Path up Snowdon passing lots of amused and bemused climbers on my bike, I finally made it to Cae Mabon (I had been following Eric’s directions, which said take a left at the first roundabout when you reach Llanberis, which I did … but they turned out to be the directions coming from the North! After 6 hours on the road, I think I’m allowed to make this kind of dumb-ass mistake). Spaced out, but exhilarated at arriving, I rollled into the Cae Mabon carpark (which was going to become familiar – more later). It was about 2.30pm. I met one of the group on the way in, lugging my stuff down, sitting on the Pilgrim Bench overlooking the valley of Llyn Padarn, Llanberis opposite. Bumped into Hilary – they had finished lunch, but I was offered food. I said a cuppa would be fine, having had my sandwiches in Betws-y-Coed, where I stocked up on Welsh beer and a Welsh scarf, having left mine at my brother’s and feeling the chill on my neck as I rode along. I was handed a cuppa and an apple was made welcome – so far, so good. I dumped my stuff in the Chalet allocated me.
With its bunkbeds it’s not the most charming of Eric’s fabulous eco-buildings, (perhaps because the others are so beautiful, everything else pales in comparison) but I was glad of a roof over my head – and that I wasn’t sharing. At least I had somewhere to go when I needed ‘my own space’ – this became essential as the week progressed.
I chilled out, unpacked, read, then went for a swim in the lake (there was a warning about the blue-green algae but we all took care and were fine). I was told it was nude bathing, so I stripped off and dashed in, only to discover half the people there had costumes on. Ah, well!
In His Element
Skinny dipping in Llyn Padarn,
washing off the dust of the road.
by its cold embrace.
After the resistance,
relief. It’s not so bad after all.
I bask in its stored sun
Boundaries challenged, blur.
The stream flows into the lake
to become one.
Dinner was at 7.00pm in the main hall. By this time, after my long journey, my stomach was making noises. I was ready to tuck in, but we had to all stand and sing ‘Grace’, Green Spirit style – some tuneless ode to Mother Earth. I brushed this off as charming eco-fluffiness, but it became apparent over the week that I had misjudged the nature of the group. Although coming across as a New Age green group, with ‘Creation Spirituality’ at their core – which I took as a take on Deep Ecology – it turns out they are mainly a bunch of Christian eco-fuddy duddies (not that I have anything against anything green, wrinkly or Christian – in small doses – I have a couple of good Christian friends and I’m planning to go on a pilgrimage to Iona next month for another, whose book I’m publishing). The average age of the group was 60. At 39, pushing 40, I was suddenly the ‘young ‘un’ of the group (and ended up feeling typecast as the ‘grumpy teenager’ all week – I can see why they get like that: disenfranchised, refused a voice, a vote, a chance to contribute). When we met at 4pm to plan a Council of All Beings ceremony I jokingly said, when introduced to the group – ‘So, is this the Council of Elders’. I wasn’t being rude. I had in my mind (mistakenly) that was the ceremony planned – which sounded good to me, as it might have served as a rite-of-passage as I approach 40 (next Wednesday). Alas, it was not the case. Another woman called Hilary (‘an Everest of Hilarys’ I suggested as a collective pronoun) decided we were all going to do this and take three days over it – this was accepted by the group without question. Suddenly the week was looking less ‘organic’ and co-creative, and more like a kind of Green Fascist Butlins. The first part of the ceremony was called a Truth Mandala, where there would be four quarters in which to share grief, sorrow, worry and not knowing. Having spent the first half of the year doing all of those things in abundance, I didn’t fancy spending ‘however long it takes’ wallowing in them on what was meant to be some light R&R in the lovely Welsh countryside. It was agreed to be ‘okay’ if you didn’t join in – I took their word on this – but, being the only one who opted out, felt something of the black sheep.
Basically, it felt like the unwritten protocol was ‘you can do what you like as long as it’s what we have planned’.
Later, I tried to establish what the rota was for cooking and washing up, but the answer I got was ‘we all just pitch in’. The notion of 14 people trying to simultaneously do these chores seemed a little absurd to me – and I wanted to know when I was ‘on duty’ so I knew when I was off duty. Instead each meal time turned into a possible guilt-trip. I decided to myself to would help once with each as my share, and that would be that. It was hard to find my footing, to find out what ‘The Rules’ were, for there certainly seemed to be some. Everyone else seemed to know them except me. When to eat, when to stand, when it was okay to offer a contribution to the ‘open mic’, when music was okay… I couldn’t discover how things were arranged – when all these rules were decided. They seemed to be no opportunity for negotiation…or for offering alternatives to ‘the programme’. Then slowly I discovered the majority of the group had been coming since the mid-Nineties. They were, except for one other, all old friends. I had ended up on a private holiday where everybody knew the jokes except I. I was in a paradigm ruled by a super-annuated oligarchy. It was like something out of the remake of the Survivors, earlier in the year. Welcome to Paradise. This is our way of doing things. You vill obey.
Now, I feel they are all probably good people – certainly pretty harmless – but just not my scene. Despite the apparent common ground they were coming from a very different place, which is fine – I’m all for accomodating paradigms in principle – but I don’t want to have it inflicted on me for a week, on my ‘hols’. My mistake, I know – although the website perhaps gives the slightly wrong impression. I imagine I may well become a green wrinkly one day – and certainly risk becoming a grumpy old git – but not yet I hope!
In the roundhouse later I was looking forward to a loose ‘bardic circle’ of poems, songs and stories. To my surprise I was handed a song sheet…which in the dark, without my glasses, I couldn’t read even if I wanted to. It was all very Sunday School. I don’t mind the odd person doing a tuneless song (everyone else had head-lamps to read the song-lyrics by – like a Dalek choir) if it’s the best they can offer around the campfire – but when you are more or less expected to join in, it becomes quickly tedious. Then someone read out a long ‘poem’ by Les Barker (the Benny Hill of poetry), who should be put on trial for crimes against poetry – what could be called versicide. I once had the misfortune to see him at Priddy and was astonished by how popular he was. It is clear that the masses have no taste, except for what they are spoonfed (‘the public wants what the public gets’). Like the doggerelist if you must, but don’t make me listen to it! I had come to Snowdonia for enchantment in the mountains, not Pam Ayres meets Songs of Praise (Barker puts on a ‘knowing fool’ act – a faux naif style, which simply is a mask for truly awful poetry). I shared my Bladud story (my home town tale) and a couple of poems – to the green man and to Mother Earth, then I went to bed. I had other poems and stories I could have offered, of course, but never got a chance over the week … maybe I could have made an opportunity, but my heart went out of it quite quickly.
The next morning I took it easy, reading my novel and the manuscript of The Way of Awen, which I had optimistically brought up to proof-read (I managed about 74 pages of the 220). In the afternoon I gave the ‘Truth Mandala’ a wide berth, hoping to see Eric, the owner – but he was out and so I went for a walk in the area to try and wake up (I spent most of the week feeling sleepy – Cae Mabon is one of those Sleepy Hollow places – nod off against a mossy rock and you risk waking up 300 years later). I guess the journey and the last few weeks had taken their toll. But I had sufficiently recovered by the next morning to climb Snowdon, which I had been meaning to do for a number of years but circumstances had conspired against me until now. It is possible to walk up Snowdon and back from Cae Mabon in a day. I walked into Llanberis and got the Sherpa bus to Pen-y-Pass. From there I opted for the Pyg Track. I walked all the way back down on the Llanberis Path (boring on the way up, but offering spectacular views on the way down). Two hours up, two hours down – not that I was racing or anything. I went at my own pace, giving myself plenty of time to ‘stand and stare’. I spent an hour on the summit, savouring the experience. I had ostensibly gone up to ‘get in touch with my animal’ for the Council of All Beings. Snowdon is known as Eyri, the Eagle’s Nest, so I felt connected with the mighty bird as I gazed out across the void, the mist occasionally parting to reveal a vertiginous chasm (although the only birds I spotted was a seagull, eyeing me as I ate a Snickers, and an extraordinary ‘fat grouse’ – perhaps this was my power animal! – who waddled about nearby, oblivious to the hordes swarming around the summit). Being on a mountain gives you a perspective on things – whatever the visibility. It felt great to get away and achieve this by myself – it had made the whole trip worthwhile, whatever else I experienced (or endured!)
Climbing the Mountain
It stands there,
always waiting for us.
Sombre, mute, magnificent.
Magnetised with all our expectations.
Looming over the hustle and bustle,
the tittle tattle,
calling to us.
White nodes of longing.
We spend half our lives
wanting to get there.
Half our lives trying.
And in the struggle, the
when, red in the face,
puffing like a steam train,
we somehow keep going,
we are never more
All our efforts of life
are in that ascent.
Some flicker of belief,
a flash of vision,
Yet when we get there
the misty summit so crowded
there’s a rota,
puffins jostling on a rock,
key rings, mouse mats,
people chatting on mobiles:
‘I’m on the mountain!’
Their holy grail is a cup of hot chocolate,
a flushing loo,
an oggy or bun.
A whistle blows, they leave,
back to the grind.
On the way up
they had passed by
the very thing they had
hoped to find.
I returned to Cae Mabon feeling great (if rather sweaty & sleepy). I showered, then soaked in the hot tub with a beer (Snowdonia Ale, from Purple Moose Brewery, ‘Bragdy Mws Pys’ or something, in Porthmadog). I was asked if I was still intending to join in with the ceremony the next day – yes, and I went and painted my mask in preparation, listening to some Sigur Ros on my laptop (the ethereal music of this Icelandic group beautifully expresses dramatic landscapes – mountains, deep valleys, glaciers – and thus, echoed my walk up Snowdon). Later, when dinner was served I asked ‘would anyone care for some gentle music to dine by?’ you would have thought from the reaction I got that I had suggested eating steaming faeces as a hors d’oeuvre. ‘Certainly not!’ one of them snapped and the others tutted and scowled in sympathy. ‘Could I put it to a vote?’ I asked, hoping for a little bit of democracy. One of them put their hand up in support – others might have felt inclined but clearly didn’t want to breach the party line. Shame I didn’t get a choice whether to listen to their tuneless warblings or not.
It was then I realised I had nothing in common with these people.
Fortunately, Eric was in and I took up a couple of beers. Having a chance to chat to him made up for a week with that lot. It was like breathing air in comparison. The conversation flowed.
Then late that night something dramatic happened which proved the final straw.
The only guy I really connected with out of the group was a chap called Don. At 3.15am he had some kind of seizure – crying out in pain and falling out of bed. This woke Ian, sharing the hogan, who found him unconscious. He was unable to revive him. Thus followed a surreal drama, made more so for being in the middle of the night when everyone was half asleep. The first I knew about it was waking up to go to the toilet at 4am (funnily enough Don had talked to me in detail about his prostrate problems that morning over breakfast). Maybe I had sensed the comings and going, but it was a call of nature that got me out of bed. However, as soon as I stepped out of the front door I was accosted by Richard, who briefed me on the situation and warned me to ‘stay out of the way’ for a helicopter was on its way. I said ‘I’m not planning to a do a circle dance, I just want to go for a piss if that’s okay!’ It seemed like I had spent the whole week being told what to do or not to do, and my patience was wearing thin. Having relieved my bladder I went back to bed, only to be woken up by the helicopter hovering over the site. Half asleep, all I could see were lights through the trees, which were being whipped into a frenzy. The sound was deafening. It was like a scene from a sci-fi movie, perhaps Forbidden Planet. Some monster was coming through the trees to snatch one of our number away. When it finally left, I thought it had taken Don with it and I wished him well. It turned out they hadn’t managed to collect him as the winch on the Sea King wasn’t working! They had to go back to the base to get another chopper! Just as well Don wasn’t dying of a heart attack, because their mistake might have cost him his life. Finally they returned and by now it was starting to get light. I was woken again by the incredible noise directly overhead. I pulled on some clothes and went outside to behold the helicopter hovering over the main circle. From it a medic was winched down, like some kind of spaceman in his gear – sharply contrasting the Iron Age-style roundhouse he landed in front of. Two other medics were already attending Don. By this point he had recovered a little and was able to be escorted out to the circle, where he was fitted into the harness and winched up with the medic and his enormous pack. And then the yellow chopper flew away into the morning light – a Welsh Rescue Dawn. Having read about Arthur being taken to Avilion to heal of his grievous wounds earlier (and discovered that Llyn Llyndaw beneath Snowdon is associated with the famous scene, when a barge comes with three queens to take the mortally wounded king to the Otherworld) I could not help see the mythic resonance of the whole scene. But it was upsetting. Don was the only one I really got on with – and now he was taken. The rest of the week was looking rather bleak. After a dreary day (the weather had worsened) with everyone in slow motion after a sleepless night, exhausted from the high drama and worry, I decided that I’d had enough and wanted to leave. I hated to leave ‘under a cloud’ but I couldn’t bear another night there with those self-righteous people. Don’s drama had brought us all together a little – through common concern – but it didn’t change what they were like. With everyone else taking charge, etc, I felt more the outsider than ever. I packed and lugged my stuff up to the carpark and loaded my bike. I went to see Eric before I left and again our conversation redeemed the experience. I felt I had connected with one human soul at least. Strangely chiming with the Arthurian mythic theme ‘streaming live’ into Cae Mabon, Eric was the picture of the wounded king. The last time I was up, he had recently injured his Achilles’ tendon – and it had got worse over months. Earlier that day he had gone into Llanberis for a doctor’s appointment and returned with a serious foot support, which looked like the kind of footwear Darth Vader would wear. He showed me the scar where he had received surgery – and it was refusing to heal properly. Yet, despite this, Eric’s ‘kingdom’ was far from a wasteland. Cae Mabon was going well – but it must be hard work to maintain and very difficult with such an injury. I had my own wound, I realised – and Don’s collapse and departure (possibly to the otherworld – for it seemed to be serious), brought it up for me. The prospect of this likeable man being taken so abruptly was a painful repeat of my various bereavements over the last five years. Hearing that he was out of the danger zone and possibly coming home made me feel a little better about leaving, but the Fates had other plans. All togged up and ready to hit the road, I turned the ignition and nothing happened. I tried various methods to fire up the old girl but nothing worked. Cursing my luck (so much for a swift exit!) I was forced to ring for my own ‘rescue’, via Green Flag. A garage from Caernafon was arranged. Unfortunately, as it was a bike, they weren’t able to send someone out until the morning. Aargghh! Reconciling myself to another night with the Green Wrinklies, I put basics in the caravan in the carpark (which Eric had suggested I could crash in if I couldn’t hit the road) and went back down to the site. It was dinner time and I was called in. Fortunately I had missed grace, if they had done it (I had pointed out to them that on Wednesday the dinner was late in coming and they were so hungry by the time it had arrived they had just fell to it without ceremony: I found this an amusingly endearing act of human weakness, but I feel my observation didn’t go down well). It seemed I was destined to put my foot in it with these people (on the morning I went to Snowdon I visited the compost loo, only to accidentally come across one of the ladies about her business. I apologised and quickly shut the door (no locks!) and used the next cubicle. I passed her on the way out and said ‘sorry about that’ but she just gave me a frosty look as though I had done it on purpose, that I was some kind of twisted pervo who got his kicks out of bursting in on ladies on the throne. Give me patience!) The final meal passed relatively painlessly, although the singing that followed seemed to rub salt into the wounds (‘Country Home Take Me Home’; ‘I Shall Be Released’…) I finally managed to get a word in edgeways, offering a poem of Don’s which seemed strangely apt, ‘Angel Wings’ from his book Moving On. Immediately afterwards, Hilary1 was called out by a text – Don was on his way home. I went up to the carpark and waited in the caravan – listening to some suitably melancholic Nick Drake. Finally Ian and June returned with our wounded adventurer and I helped escort him down into the site with my torch (it’s a steep path and perilous in the dark). I made the travellers drinks, and relieved that Don seemed well enough to eat and chat, I hit the sack. It meant a great deal to me to have someone, for once, come back, from the brink of death. It felt like I was meant to be there for that moment of his return – and now finally, I could leave. In the morning, after saying goodbye to Don after breakfast, the man from Gwalia (a nice scouser, with whom I blathered like a man just let out of solitary) Garage finally turned up and, quickly identifying the problem, but unable to fix it on site, we pushed the bike into the van and I was whisked to Caernafon (my own Rescue Dawn) where it was soon fixed (flat battery due to a dodgy connection) and I was finally on my way. It was lashing down but I didn’t mind: I was on my way home!
All good material, anyway ;0) When you’re a writer, nothing is wasted – everything experience is redeemable. However excruciating at the time, such experiences are, for a writer, priceless. Thank you, Green Wrinklies. I had hoped to find inspiration in Snowdonia, and I certainly did!