Bardic Pilgrimage: Henry Vaughn

Henry Vaughn Physic Garden

Henry Vaughn Physic Garden, Talybont-on-Usk, Brecon Beacons

So, with happy anticipation, my Welsh pilgrimage has begun. The plan is to take three days heading north from Monmouth until I reach St George/Llan San Siôr on the north coast of Wales. My mother’s family have their roots in this small village, but I’ve never been there before. I’m also planning to visit three sites associated with Welsh bards. So really, it’s a personal pilgrimage, a listening tour and a poetic odyssey rolled into one.

My first stop, Talybont-on-Usk in the Brecon Beacons, is associated with the metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughn (1621-1695). Known by the Bardic name of The Swan of Usk, I’ve had a soft spot for Vaughn and his teacher, George Herbert, since studying the metaphysical poets when I was 17. I wanted to see the river Usk that I’d read about in his poetry. I also wanted to follow the Henry Vaughn Walk, which promised to lead me through places associated with Henry and his twin brother, Thomas, a hermetic philosopher and alchemist. After dodging cars and cyclists in Talybont, I was glad to cross over the river and out of the village. 

A small sign alerted me to the Henry Vaughn physic garden and I entered. A group of volunteers had been busy re-creating the garden with the herbs that the Vaughn brothers would have used as physicians and alchemists. There was no one else around and it felt like a very good place to stop, sit and listen. A stanza of Vaughan’s was going through my head:

They are all gone into the world of light! 
And I alone sit ling’ring here; 
Their very memory is fair and bright, 
And my sad thoughts doth clear.

It seemed very appropriate, expect for the fact that I wasn’t feeling sad at all. Quite the opposite. It was a warm August day, with a light breeze; I’d had a good lunch; I was on a pilgrimage-tour-odyssey. But the stanza would not leave me alone. How was I going to be able to listen to the garden when these words kept going around my head? Turns out, I wasn’t. I closed my eyes and began to sing them, softly at first, but sensing that all was well, I sang them out loud. When I finished, I felt a contended hush descend on the garden. I wondered if the words had wanted to come home again? It certainly felt right that some words that had been brought forth over 400 years ago, should be brought back to where they came from, along with my thanks and appreciation to those in the world of light. And that’s the thing about listening to the land: sometimes, its not you that’s doing the listening, but the land itself.

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