Yesterday I stood and watched as an ancient, irreplaceable wood was destroyed. I hadn’t gone to listen, but to bear witness and yes, to hope that by doing so, I may be able to come to terms with my own sorrow. Sorrow for the trees, the bats, the foxes, the badgers, the plants, the insects and the newly nested eggs that will now never get the chance to hatch into birds. Sorrow also for us: that we, as people, don’t realise or care what we are doing, what we are losing. Actually, that’s unfair: many do realise and have spent countless, heart-breaking hours fighting against the destruction of Jones’ Hill Wood and too many other natural habitats that have or are about to share its fate. But we have “leaders” who can re-route HS2 to save a golf course, but not to save ancient woodland and the creatures within it.
As I stood there, I could hear power generators, voices of the HS2 contractors and most of all, I could hear the saws. Other than that, it was eerily quiet. Its sounds crazy, I know, but I wanted the wood to hear something other than the sounds of its own destruction. So I sang.
I was tired and the error was mine, but I didn’t really check much about this site in advance. So, I was perturbed when I arrived to find that Saint Andrew’s well (refurbished by the Women’s Institute in 1988) consisted of a tap and a trough. There was no sign of the spring itself. Worse, it was on the main road through the village. Still, I was tired, it had a seat and so I sat on it.
I became entranced by the aquatic life forms in the trough in their spiralling dance with themselves. I must have stopped listening altogether because the next thing I knew I was immersed within a strange sound: something like a dog drinking. Hold on, it WAS a dog drinking. But in the moment between the hearing and the identification, the sound took hold of me as if there was no distance between it and me. It was a very odd and unexpected experience.
I looked up to see a black and white pointer and its owner. “Do you want any more to drink, Sasha?” the owner enquired. Sasha obliged with a few more gulps, during which I debated whether to mention the aquatic life forms to her owner. Then Sasha and owner trotted off.
But what had happened to me? Had I been actively listening at that point, instead of gazing mesmerised at the creatures in the trough, would Sasha’s drinking have had the same effect on me? I don’t think so. The nearest I can come to explain it comes from a book of Zen stories that I read once which talked about how an unexpected sound can trigger a breakthrough moment of kensho, or enlightenment. The sound could be a rooster, the creak of a floorboard, someone’s sneeze in the meditation hall, or even a dog drinking. Indeed, “any sound that finds little or nothing of you in the way and fills you completely can let you in directly to the shocking open secret: ‘what is left that can be said to hear?’”1
Accidentally enlightened by a Christianised well in a small village in Somerset? Let’s keep that one an open secret too.
1The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, Edited by Florence Carlow and Susan Moon
Wistman’s Wood is a special place. It is one of the highest oak woods in Britain, but its not like any other oak wood I’ve ever visited. The oaks grow through crevices between large granite boulders called clatters; as a result their growth is stunted and their trunks and branches are contorted. Both the clatters and the oaks are covered in lichen and moss, which lend a particularly vivid greenness to the wood. It’s a weird mix of the fecund – Hildegard Von Bingen may have called it viriditas, the green creative life force – and the misshapen and stunted.
But I confess, despite the interesting natural features of the wood, I was even more drawn to its folklore. ‘Wisht’ means weird, uncanny or eerie and the wood is associated with the mythic Wild Hunt. I’ve heard of people having strange sensations of malevolence directed towards them; of feeling watched, or even being driven out of the wood. What would such a place sound like?
I arrived about 8pm on a suitably windy and damp summer evening. Out of respect – and self-preservation – I asked, as usual, if it was ok for me to enter. I received a positive response and did so. I had the wood to myself.
It took me a while to set up my tripod for a photo and I became annoyed with myself for messing about and wasting time when I had come to be still and listen. So I put my camera away and sat on a clatter. At this point, I was unaware of the presence of a large adder population in the wood, so take care if you do the same.
The more I have listened, the more I have become attuned not just to sound, but to all vibrations. This includes feeling, sensations and “knowing.” That’s how I can confidently say that I was invited into the wood. There wasn’t much to hear here that was audible – the wind, the odd raven call – but there was a lot going on on the non-audible level. I was truly surprised how benign the wood felt. I felt not only that I was welcome, but that the wood was happy that I was there. Yes, I did feel a presence behind me, but it was not threatening.
I heard voices: a young couple appeared. The woman was complaining about the speed they were hopping across the clatters and that it would be his fault if she broke an ankle. They disappeared. Then a family with an unhappy child arrived. The child was also upset about the terrain and was crying until his father picked him up. It took them longer to pass me and I could hear the child still whining for a while, but eventually they too were gone. What did they think of me sitting there? Did they wonder what could there be to do sat in the one place? Maybe they knew about the adders? What did I think of them? Well, truthfully, I felt sad for them, rushing through such a magical place, without stopping to simply be there, with wonder, reverence and more than a little joy.
I was in the mood for a waterfall. But, as I’m sure anyone who’s read any of my posts so far will already have anticipated, I wasn’t in the mood for a crowded one. Venford Falls, sometimes known as Dartmoor’s secret waterfall, seemed to fit the bill nicely. When I told my landlady I was off to find it she gave me that look that says “good luck cos you’ll need it.” Turns out, with good reason.
I realise now that the instructions I was following were the wrong way round. Written by someone else who wanted to keep the falls a secret? Not knowing this at the time, though, I began to get disheartened as the landmark I was looking for failed to materialise. I noticed a trail through the undergrowth that veered off to the right and decided to follow it. I was convinced that it was a wild goose chase and was also becoming increasingly alarmed at the steepness of the path down. But then, almost without realising it, I began to hear something that sounded like a waterfall. Was this the first time in all my years of listening that I heard my intended location before seeing it?
And there it was. The falls themselves are small, but very beautiful. There was just me and a mouthy green woodpecker. Having convinced myself that I was about to go home empty eared, I was beside myself with happiness. Best of all, for the first time in a very, very long time, I was in a place entirely free from human made noise.
Waterfalls are wonderful for listening to. As I listened I began to hear voices as if I was hearing a choir of water spirits: bass, tenor, alto and treble. Then each section began to break into separate parts until there were several multipart fugues going on at the same time. I teased myself by trying to follow an individual part, but there always came a point where my ear became delightedly confused about which voice it was trying to follow. That may have been why the woodpecker was laughing at me.
Eventually, however, despite the insect repellant, the midges got the better of me. Venford Falls would only tolerate human visitors for so long.
Finding Venford falls
From the north of Venford Reservoir, follow Venford Brook on your right towards the Dart River. There is a stand of trees to your right: when they stop, look for a path that curves off to your right and follow down to the brook. Be warned: the path is very steep and slippery and mobile coverage is patchy, so please tell someone where you are going.
A Neolithic earthwork, a ruined Norman church, a line of ancient yew trees and a reputation for supernatural occurrences: what might this place sound like? Well, turns out the only thing you could hear on the day when I went was a didgeridoo.
I don’t set myself up as an expert in listening to the land, but I’ve learned a few things in my time and if I were to share a tip or two, today’s would be: don’t go listening on a solstice. There’s something about solstices, equinoxes and the Celtic festivals that brings out a desire to mark the occasion with musical instruments that are meaningful for the player and annoying for everyone else. Its usually drumming circles, so at least today was bit different. I normally avoid listening excursions on these days, but I was here to speak at a festival just down the road at Gaunts House and today was all I had.
I hung around for a while to see if the didge guy would give the rest of us a break, but no, he was in it for the long haul. So I wandered a bit listlessly into the ruined church and then over to the yew trees. Despite my mood, I was soon captivated by them: people had transformed them into a shrine with offerings of clooties, prayers, images and tokens. Some of the messages touched me deeply, especially the many left in honour of deceased pets. I thought of my own beloved dogs and my eyes filled up for them all over again. There was an aura of peace and I felt grateful for having my dogs in my life and grateful for the space to feel grateful. Perhaps today was about listening to the heartfelt feelings of those who had left offerings in the trees and a teaching about how the voice of prayers can also become part of the spirit of a place.
While making my way down to the sand dunes it occurred to me that its not very often that you can make a trip to listen to a particular species of mammal. I suppose that I could find a field of cows to listen to, maybe some horses. But truly wild mammals? That’s quite a rare and special experience. Even more special in the case of seals.
As a child, I was a sucker for folk tales and songs about selkies: magical creatures that are seals in the water and humans on the land. When full time humans and selkies meet it doesn’t usually begin or end well. Sometimes humans are lured into the sea by the haunting song of the selkies; sometimes the humans appear to get the upper hand by stealing a selkie’s skin while the selkies are dancing in the moonlight. The poor selkie is thereby obliged to stay in human form and marry the thief who stole their skin. Inevitably, the skin is found and the selkie returns to the sea, either leaving offspring behind or taking their children with them. Either way, there’s sorrow for those destined to remain on land. Anyway, those are the tales. I always wondered where they came from. What was it about seals that inspired such legends? Was it just their dual identity as sea creatures that give birth on land? Maybe it had something to do with their strange beauty? And, indeed, what was this haunting, but elusive seal song that was often alluded to in the story? Was I about to find out?
The first two sounds that hit me was the wind and the sea. For a moment I was completely enveloped by these, until the wind, the sea and I seemed to be one entity. Then I heard it…strands of song emerging from within the wind/sea/me sound. It was incredibly moving and arresting. It was also distinctly musical. I detected three main phrases: a downwards glissando of a fifth; an upwards glissando of a second or third, which sometimes descended again and sometimes not; and two repeated notes. The pitch was remarkably consistent too: most phrases started on the quarter-tone between C and Db. Before A was raised to 440, the seals would have been vocalising pretty near to C (sea?) natural itself. One longer phrase lodged itself into my head and I was still singing it to myself later on that evening. I eventually wrote it down and it went like this:
Had I been alone one evening on the shore and caught a snatch of that song through the roar of the wind and the sea, would I have thought I was hearing someone singing? You bet I would. I think I would also have struggled to know whether the singer was human, animal, or some magical hybrid of the two. I also think that I would have felt a sadness or a longing come over me in response to the strange, haunting and mesmerising song; the same sad longing that whispers through all the folk tales about Selkies.
Have you ever sat listening in an art gallery? No? Then I highly recommend that you give it a try.
First of all, it’s deliciously subversive. You can bet that you are the only listener in a room full of lookers. You will hear the odd word as people discuss the art, sotto voce. Can you tell by listening who’s confident in what they are saying and who’s not sure? Can you tell who’s genuinely captivated by the art and who’s just read the book, done the course and parroted an opinion?
People who are moved by art SOUND different. They move and speak in a different way, their attention held outwards and inwards at the same time. They even sit or stand still in a different way, a way that has a quiet reverence about it. Try it and you will hear what I mean.
Before you ask, yes, I listen to paintings. Many of them, if not most of them, are unlistenable. Very few painters know how to paint for the ears, but some do. That’s one of the reasons I like it in the Blake room so much. We take Blake out of context now, with his plates and prints peered at in art galleries and his words prodded at in books. But his songs were intended to be sung and his prophecies were intended to be intoned and the images in his illuminated books were intended to represent the energies of his words in spiritual form.
If you get into this, try listening to Blake’s words. What you do see? Then, try his art. What do you hear? Do let me know.
I walked past Knavesmire several times on my way between my hotel and York city centre. A commemorative plaque situated near to the road informed me that it had been the site of public hangings until 1801.
On first acquaintance, I could tell that the place didn’t have any particular need of assistance and I had no interest in listening to it simply for the sake of it – a kind of aural rubber-necking, if you will. But eventually, I stopped. I noticed the flowers that someone had left on the plaque, but I also noticed something else. Can you see it too? How the benches, the trees, the paths, everything, was perfectly balanced. Interesting, I thought, and walked on.
Later that evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about the symmetry of the site. Was it a positive symmetry, showing balance and harmony, or an unnatural symmetry, showing constriction to the area’s life force? I couldn’t tell. At some time in the night, I had a vivid dream in which I dreamt that I was an “aural archeologist” investigating the symmetry question. One of the first things my dream showed me was that the plaque wasn’t situated exactly on the site of the gallows – it had last been about 2 metres to the southeast. Before that, the gallows had been reassembled several times in slightly different locations, but the strongest energetic imprint was from its most recent position. The design of the site, the placing of the raised platform, benches and path and the planting of the trees had indeed imposed a constrictive symmetry on the site, which was successfully containing its negative energies. But I could hear a low rumbling which – I knew in my dream – was the undercurrent of the trauma associated with the site that had not yet been cleared. If any of the surrounding containers were to change, the negative energy could well be released again.
When I woke up, I could still tune into the site as I had in my dream. The rumble was still discernible, but now I could also feel a tension between the plaque and the actual position of the gallows. Whoever had put the plaque in the middle had played a master stroke because it was pulling the energy into an uneasy, but relatively stable, alignment.
All of this is interesting enough in its own right. But what has really peaked my interest about the whole dream is that it has started me wondering about intentional remote listening. Is it possible to listen to places remotely? It’s certainly a question that is worth investigating further…
What often strikes me as I listen to the land is how much there is to be heard on the non-audible level. This can translate as feeling, sensation and “knowing”, as well as sound, words or music that is heard or perceived internally. A word that is frequently used to describe non-audible sound is energy and I’m sure many people habitually tune into the energetic signature of a place. When I arrive at a new site, as soon as I have permission to approach, I become aware of its energy. The energy is transmitted as part of the permission, actually, because this is how you know whether or not you are welcome.
As I tune in more deeply, I start to sense whether the energy is longstanding or recent. Usually, longstanding energy is a natural part of the place, whereas recent energy has been brought to bear upon it – mostly by human activity. There are also instances when human activity has caused a longstanding effect on a place’s energy. Sadly, when a place’s long term energy has been altered by humans, it is usually of a negative kind, such as that at battlefields and other places of significant trauma.
When I pick up recent energy, it can be either positive or negative. I have felt some very chilling energy left by human activity at a certain stone circle, for instance. I wondered what I would find today on Wearyall Hill.
Legend says that The Glastonbury Thorn sprang up where Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff on Wearyall Hill – the first land he reached on his travels to Britain. The Thorn that has grown ever since on Wearyall Hill is said to be a descendant of that first Thorn. The most recent tree was planted from a cutting in 1951. I say grown ever since, but in reality, the Thorn was tragically vandalised in 2010: subsequent efforts to revive the tree were also brutally thwarted as shoots of regrowth were continually damaged by hands and motives unknown.
I remember well the outpouring of grief for the Thorn at the time. I was prepared for the energy of the place to reflect this, but what I found was something very beautiful. There was sadness, yes, but most of all there was love. A lot of people had put a lot of time into intentionally healing the place – and it was tangible.
I felt moved to add a song. There was no need for me to sing of remorse or sorrow. That work had already been done well by others. Instead, I sang a simple song of gratitude:
Thank you for bringing us together Bringing us together as one In love of you.
One of the most wonderful things about being a Companion of Chalice Well and staying at Little St Michael’s retreat house is the freedom to be in the garden at any time, day or night, for the duration of your stay. I fell irrevocably in love with the peaceful and nurturing presence of the gardens the first time I visited Glastonbury over 30 years ago and on that day I bought a small goddess carved from a branch of one of the gardens’ yews trees. This figurine keeps me connected to the gardens even when I’ve not visited for several years. But this year, it felt time to go again.
The Companions of Chalice Well understand well the value of silence. There are no mobile phones, radios, laptops or tablets allowed in the retreat house and the upper room is reserved for silent meditation. I slipped quickly into a state of peace and tranquility.
I hadn’t planned to do so, but I ended up spending time in the gardens, alone, during the two liminal times of dusk and dawn. Around 7.30pm, I stepped out of the backdoor of Little St Michael’s and made my way slowly through the sections of the garden, ending up at the well enclosure just as it was getting dark. Sitting here, I could hear a robin chirping and a light breeze rustle the ferns. I could also hear the well itself. Its difficult to describe what a well sounds like – if you’ve listened to one too, you’ll understand. You can hear the spring itself trickling down the hill, but the well cavity amplifies it in a certain way so that it sounds both more immediately present and also further away. I imagine it would sound similar if you were able to stand inside a conch shell and listen to the sound of the sea. I was in my happy place and I re-iterated my vow to those present that I would continue to listen my way through life, striving to know more and more deeply that which ever sounded on an audible and on a non-audible level. I also whispered my desire to learn how to embody the peace enveloping me in that special place and share it out in the world.
The next morning I woke at 4am and couldn’t get back to sleep, so again I went out into the gardens. I spent some time recording the fountains on the lower lawns and in the Lion’s Head Courtyard on my Zoom recorder. I was hoping it would be quiet so early in the day, but there was already quite a bit of traffic on the A361 and I only ever managed to get about a minute’s worth of clean audio. I didn’t feel drawn to the well as I had the previous evening, so I went up to the Meadow and listened to a small but exuberant dawn chorus of robin, wren and blackbird, while watching the sun rise on the Tor.
On my way back to my room, I passed the silent minute bell. A plaque in the garden describes its purpose thus:
“Around midday and mid afternoon we invite you to take a minute’s silence with us.
A moment of silence A moment of reflection A moment of inner peace
On most days the ringing of a bell will signify these times.”
Here is a really good recording of the silent minute:
I can’t resist a good well. I’ve listened to all sorts in my time, from secret springs in woodland grottos to echoing concrete baths with creaky taps. But never anything remotely like St Winefride’s well. As a well, it was on a scale beyond anything I’d ever seen before; as a shrine, it was a similar experience to visiting Knock, the main Marian shrine in Ireland.
I loved St Winefride’s well. I loved the damp-infused stone of the intricately carved pillars and the emerald green of the water. I loved the votive candles and the collection of discarded crutches and walking sticks. But I didn’t get much listening done. The problem was that one of the guides just would not stop talking. It was all good and fitting stuff: history of the well, problems with funding and maintenance, visitors that lacked the appropriate piety, his aunt’s bad back and so on. He’d pinned a couple to the bench in the main well house. They were discussing the state of the A55 and the man looked over at me, desperately trying to draw me into the conversation: “What did I think of the A55?” he enquired of me.
I knew what he was up to. Get the guide’s attention on me so that they could do a crafty runner. The stakes were high. How could I get out of it? I waited for inspiration, but none came. Then… something… a glimmer of a plan formed in my mind… yes, that was it! “Sorry” I said, in an accent not native to anywhere on Earth, “I don’t speak English.”
The man’s face fell and the guide scowled. I then had to keep up the accent, which kept mutating, for the rest of the visit. Back in the shop, the guide scowled at me again. I realised that I was carrying a guide book in English. Rumbled.
Back in the car, I mused about it all. Was pretending that I didn’t speak English a reasonable ploy to get out of small talk with a stranger? Perhaps not. But it did underline to me how much I dislike pointless conversation and would – clearly – do almost anything to avoid it. I’m not saying that anyone whose conversation is sub-Oscar Wilde level should never speak, but there’s something to be said (pardon the pun), for thinking a bit more about what we say. Does this really want to be said or am I just saying it to fill a space? Are my words welcome to others? Or do they make others desperate to get away from me? And really, what this all boils down to is listening. Yet again, my experience has taught me the importance of listening – not just to the land, but to other people and to the words we say to them.
Cerridwen lives under Llyn Tegid, or Lake Bala, so if I didn’t find her on the Black Road yesterday, I may well find her here. This was where Taliesin served his apprenticeship, stirring Cerridwen’s cauldron for a year and a day until he accidentally imbibed the brew that was intended for her son, thus becoming the awen-filled poet with the shining brow. As such, Llyn Tegid was an unmissable stop on my Welsh pilgrimage and poetic odyssey.
My introduction to the lake was a little more prosaic: I took the narrow gauge railway along the southern shore from Llanuwchllyn to Bala. Along the way, I realised that one of my challenges would be to find access to the lake itself: the shores seemed to be mainly private land and those parts where the public did have access had the feel of a crowded beach resort.
That evening I drove out along the north shore and got lucky. From a deserted lay-by I found a steep path that led down to a secluded part of the lake shore. It was exactly what I wanted. I sat and began to listen. The water of the lake lapped against the stones at my feet in an ever-changing pattern. Nevertheless, the constantly changing and evolving lake song began to take on a steady rhythm. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do, but sit and be. I wondered if stirring a cauldron for a year and a day would induce a similarly meditative state. Perhaps that was a formative factor in Taliesin’s poetic development?
I heard voices coming down the path. A man in his 20s spotted me first: “Don’t let us spoil yer evening, luv” he said. “Don’t worry” I said “you didn’t. I was just going.” I had nowhere to go, nothing to do and so I could just as easily go do it somewhere else.
I just back to Llanuwchllyn in time to see these remarkable orange clouds. That, and the hot chocolate back at the B&B, were a perfect ending to the day.
Today was a big day. For years, I have wanted to pay my respects at the grave of Taliesin, Primary Chief Bard of Britain. Never mind that this is a Bronze Age round cairn and the real Taliesin lived sometime in the 6th century. If you’ve read any of Taliesin’s poetry you’ll know that such a thing would present no problem at all to this shape-shifting and time-bending master poet.
Anyway, I’m not in the mood for the dry factuality of history. Today is a day for myth and poetry. Such a monumental day, in fact, that I was actually feeling a little jittery when I pulled up to the farm; not least because it felt weird driving through the closed farm gate, past the farmer and parking outside his house.
The cows weren’t helping either. The first thing I heard was some very indignant bellowing in the field next to the cairn. Had they picked up on my nervousness? I tried saying hello to them, but they were not to be appeased. They just kept staring at me and mooing in a most disconcerting manner. I was glad there was a fence between us.
The cairn itself is in a glorious location overlooking the Dyfi Estuary, with Snowdonia shimmering away in the distance. I don’t doubt that the location of the grave was chosen exactly for its commanding position. It also appears to be on the crossroads between two ceremonial roads: Sarn Helen and The Black Road. Both roads are associated with Welsh goddesses: Cerridwen and Elen of the Roads. I had previously read that the Black Road led to a ceremonial site associated with Cerridwen. However, when I tried to find the reference again, there was no trace of it. Sarn Helen is said to be the road built by Macsen Wledig for Elen of the Roads, after she visited him in a dream. It links South and North Wales, from Carmarthen to Caernarfon, and felt a very appropriate road to walk as part of my south-north Welsh pilgrimage.… I looked longingly along the track…and then swung right and started walking up The Black Road. As Taliesin’s initiatrix, it was Cerridwen that I had come to meet.
A bit along the road I realised that I had forgotten to listen at Bedd Taliesin. How on earth did I manage to do that? I was certainly in a giddy mood and the cows had really thrown me. But, I couldn’t blame the cows. I would listen as I walked instead.
It was a bright, warm August day with a light refreshing breeze. The skies were clear, the rowans were in berry and I could see the mountains of Snowdonia ahead of me. I was totally and utterly alone and I was off on an adventure in search of Cerridwen. I couldn’t have been any happier.
Until I met the cows. They were standing on the road and there was really no way around them.
I think they must be linked on some cow wavelength to the cows back at the farm, because it looked as if they had been expecting me. When one of them took a step towards me, I did what anyone with a shred of self-preservation would do: walked sharpish back the way I’d just come.
Well, I’d failed to listen to Taliesin’s grave and I’d failed to find Cerridwen, all because of the cows. All because of the cows? Just Listen to myself! Ah, Listen to myself. Perhaps THAT was what I should be doing here.
Back at the grave, it was just as I suspected it would be. The cows had gone. I sat down next to it and listened to myself, really and fully for the first time in a long time. To my hopes, dreams, longings, worries and regrets. Then, I told them all to Taliesin. Just in case he was listening too.
By now, my northward road had taken me as far as mid Wales and the second stop on my Welsh pilgrimage: the isolated, ruined abbey of Strata Florida. I had gone to pay my respects to the 14th century bardic poet, Daffyd ap Gwilym, who is believed to be buried there.
I find it hard to describe my feelings about Strata Florida. Luckily, I bought a book of poems inspired by the abbey and the introduction says it for me:
“Visitors to Strata Florida often remark that it seems a special place. What they consider to constitute this specialness varies – some feel it is the natural beauty, some its mythic and historical associations, and some its tranquility or holiness. Poets tend to perceive this specialness as inspiration. Often a visit is described as a ‘pilgrimage’, even where there is no spiritual intent.1“
In the Bardic tradition, Awen is poetic inspiration. It’s always present, anywhere and everywhere, but some places have an abundance of it. Strata Florida is one such place. I found a bench out of the wind and, as three green-veined white butterflies danced around me, I listened. At first I could hear a family speaking in an affectionate German; then they left and I was alone. Strains of music danced through my mind like the butterflies, along with voices uttering sentences of beauty in languages I don’t speak but understood. I knew it was useless to try to capture it – none of it was mine to be reproduced, anyway. Hearing it for that moment was enough. Many places that I have listened to seem to need healing and I try to do what I can. But here, I was the one receiving. When I opened my eyes, the butterflies had gone and so had the words and the music. But the sense of Awen itself remained.
I could see why Dafydd was a regular visitor here. Remembering the purpose of my visit, I went to find the yew tree that is said to mark his grave and pay my respects.
The yew-tree for the best young man By the wall of Strata Florida and its mansion, God’s blessing on you, paradise of trees, That you have grown to be Dafydd’s house. To the Yew-tree above Dafydd ap Gwilym’s Grave.
Gruffudd Gryg (trans. Dafydd Johnston)
As I left, I passed the two Taliesin Stones. I took this as a good sign, for tomorrow, I would be seeking out the great bard, Taliesin, himself.
1Poetry from Strata Florida: An Anthology of work inspired by the Ystrad Fflur landscape, 1350-2013, edited by Martin Locock
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.
My trip to listen to the Harold’s Stones turned out to be a masterclass in how not to listen to the land. If you are looking to have a rubbish listening experience that leaves you feeling vaguely disappointed in yourself, just follow my handy point-by-point guide.
1. Try to find the Harold’s Stones using a 4 miles to 1 inch road map of the whole of Great Britain, because you are too tight to buy an OS map of the area.
2. Assume that if you get lost you will have a mobile signal so that you can google your way out of it.
3. Fail resoundingly to find the Harold’s Stones.
4. Get annoyed with yourself.
5. Be too proud to ask locals for help.
6. Get even more agitated because the evening light is perfect for photography. Torture yourself with thoughts of the amazing images of the stones you could capture, if you could only find them.
7. Nearly cause an accident by driving with one eye on the road and the other on the hunt for a field with stones in it.
8. See the Harold’s stones! Drive for ages to find somewhere to park.
9. Rush back to the Harold’s stones to capture the last bit of light, with bits of camera, lenses and tripod flying akimbo.
10. Be in such a hurry to take your photos that you forget to honour the site. Just dash up and without asking, start taking photos as if you were born to be on Instagram.
11. Realise what you’ve done. Say you’re sorry.
12. Half-heartedly and shame-facedly try to listen, knowing that you’ve just shown the Harold’s Stones that you are a disrespectful buffoon.
And if you really want to make an extra special mess of it, here are couple of additional pointers for later:
13. Find out that your photos weren’t any good, anyway.
14. Realise later that you missed two other sites – a holy well and a Norman motte – in the same village.
One of the constants of listening to the land is the trouble one often has with finding the more off-the-beaten-track locations. If I do find somewhere after a challenging search, I’m usually a little high with pleasure just to be there. King Arthur’s Cave, however, is the first place I have found after having completely given up looking for it. I’d gone back to the car and pulled into the first available lay-by to turn around. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a noticeboard. I like noticeboards a lot because they always teach you something interesting about the local flora, fauna or geology. So in the hope of learning something new which might mitigate my cave finding failure, I got out of the car to take a look. I liked this noticeboard even more than usual because it informed me that King Arthur’s Cave was ¼ mile away to the east.
When I arrived, it was the golden hour. I could hear red kites calling and sheep in the fields below. As is often the case when I’m on the land, I felt joyful. I sat outside the cave for a while, just soaking in the summer evening. In truth, I was reluctant to venture out of the life-affirming light into the darkness and goodness know what of the cave.
But eventually, the cave called and I entered. As the light from outside dimmed, so did the sound from outside. But soon the quiet of the cave became very loud. I started to feel a little scared, but checked myself and sat on my stool in the dark. I often have difficulty finding the language to describe what I hear and this is one of those occasions. Because what I could hear was the breath of animals that weren’t there.
I sat with that for a while and it was fine and then, suddenly, it wasn’t fine. I got spooked and left. Outside the cave I met a friendly terrier followed by its friendly owner and everything was fine again.
Why did I leave the cave so quickly? One of the tasks in listening to the land is to offer healing in whatever way seems necessary and I and many others do what we can. I’ve encountered some weird stuff on my listening travels and I like to think I’m pretty sturdy when it comes to uncomfortable energies. But this was something that, at the time, felt beyond me. I think its important to acknowledge to ourselves when we come up against something like that. If in any doubt, it really is best – for us and for the land – to venture no further on that visit.
I was visiting my cousin and her husband in Dundee. They very kindly offered to take me on a road trip around their beautiful part of the world. As we passed through village and town, it was like all the Scottish harp music I’d played throughout my life was coming home. I recognised place names on signposts connected to songs and tunes I’d previously encountered only as sheet music: Dunkeld Hermitage Bridge, The Birks of Aberfeldy, Killin’s Hill of Fairy, Kinloch of Kinloch and on and on. I gave my cousins a little rendition of each from the back seat. I bet they loved it.
So when we got to Loch Tay, it was time for the Loch Tay Boat Song. Little did I realise that I was setting myself up for a fall.
I left them in the Kenmore Hotel with their coffees and slipped out for a little while for a listen. It was a calm, but chilly, early evening. I could see the boats bobbing up and down in front of me and not too far away I could see the crannog in the distance. But what could I hear? Nothing but the Loch Tay Boat Song. I could NOT get it out of my head.
I’m no stranger to having tunes inside my head. In fact, I have one playing pretty constantly, like the background score of my life’s movie. Even my breathing has a simple tune attached to it. The tunes unfold as they please reflecting how I’m feeling. I’m aware that if this is not your experience, it could sound crazy-making, but actually I find the tunes comforting. Its a bit like inner whistling. But every now and then I get an ear worm and these are not the same thing at all; an ear worm repeats the same phrase over and over again and it can even be a tune that I dislike. The easiest way to get rid of an ear worm is to replace it with another one. I tried, but no. I could not shift the damn Loch Tay Boat Song.
This got me wondering about what was going on? Sure, I was on Loch Tay, but that didn’t really explain why I couldn’t shift the tune despite my best efforts. For instance, right now I’m writing about my experience at Loch Tay, but the Loch Tay Boat Song is not in my head. I’m having to search for how the tune goes to remind myself of it.
I wonder. Was there something so right and correct about the original music that it fitted perfectly with the land? So, that when listening in this location, was I, in fact, picking up the song of the loch in the same way that the original composer of the tune had? So it wasn’t an ear worm at all? I wonder.
“There are days when an uncanny silence seems to hang over the surface of ‘Silent Pool’, a small lake surrounded by trees a mile west of Shere in Surrey. And if the legend that is told about the lake is true, this silence recalls the murderous lechery of a prince and the tragic deaths of a woodman’s children.”
So says my Readers’ Digest Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain. This may have been true in 1973 when the book was written, but it was not true today. Far from it, thanks to the throngs of motorcyclists congregating in the area and the attendant cacophony. I enjoy a bit of irony as much as the next person, but my visit to The Silent Pool gave me little reason to smile.
I loathe the sound of motorbikes. All human-created noise destroys the tranquility of the environment; this includes the noise my car made to get me to the place in question. I acknowledge that. But motorbikes are specifically designed to make more noise than is mechanically necessary. Why? Because noise = power. Those that have the technical ability to make a high volume noise completely control the aural fate of others. It’s the same warped mentality that uses noise as weapons of war and torture. It says “listen to me, I’m important and you are not.” So motorcycle manufacturers make bikes that inflict ever-increasing amounts of noise on others and motorcyclists buy them, either because they don’t realise, or don’t care, how devastating the noise is.
The noise of motorbikes is impossible to ignore. It devastates peace and tranquility, spoiling the natural environment for everyone else. At a time when people like me are trying to show that we need, more than ever, to listen to the land, motorcyclists are robbing us of our ability to do so.
Yet, its not just spoiling the enjoyment of others: it is actually harmful. It has been proved beyond doubt that excess noise causes mental and physical disease in humans. Studies have also shown that wildlife is harmed by loud noise: to survive, creatures are forced to alter their behaviour as a result of noise-induced stress. This can even permanently impact the environment causing lasting degradation to the natural soundscape. According to Bernie Krause:
When unwanted noise occurs, human and non-human creatures alike are denied an experience of their important acoustic connections. Humans especially lose that positive interaction between themselves and the living world.1
The above quote comes from Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Natural World. Along with Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origin of Music in the World’s Wild Places, its an important book because it shows how human noise is intruding upon wild places ever more insidiously. It also shows what we stand to lose if we allow this to continue. I recommend it highly.
All sorts of myths and legends have arisen surrounding Ambresbury Banks: according to some it was the site of the last stand of Boudica against the Romans in AD 61; according to others, it was re-purposed by Aurelianus Ambrosius against the invading Saxons sometime in the 5th century. Who knows? What is known is that it is part of a group of Iron Age hill forts in the area that were probably built to defend the Trinovantes (Essex area) against the Catuvellauni (Hertfordshire area).
Other legends talk of ghostly sightings and eerie presences: Romans, black dogs, highwaymen, Boudica herself. Take your pick. But, take it from me, there’s something a bit weird going on here. There’s definitely an unwelcoming vibe. Its not malevolent exactly. If I had to put my finger on it, I would say the place felt wary of me.
Ambresbury banks did not want to be found. I had a right job locating it, far more so than I should have done. When I finally found it, I asked if I could approach as I always do. The answer was no. I pushed a bit and felt quite an energetic push back; I took a step forward and sank down to the level of my ankles in a leaf bog. I absolutely should have taken that as a no and I would have done and left any other time. That’s my rule. But, for some reason, I didn’t. I think it was because the place felt like it was protecting itself against me and I wanted, in my human hubris, to show it that it had nothing to be frightened of. I wanted to see if I could help it. So I pushed forward.
I sat on the bank and listened. The wariness had turned to sadness, tinged with bitterness. What had happened here??? My attention became fixed on the sound of the traffic on the nearby road. I’m up against traffic noise all the time and (with the exception of motorbikes And military jets) I’ve become adept at filtering it out. But today, I could not get beyond the traffic sound. Was that the problem? Not the energetic remains of a battle at all, but something as simple as the natural frequency of the place being disturbed by a road? It seemed crazy, but the more I sat there, the more convinced I became that that was the problem. I told the place that I understood and that I was truly sorry for the traffic noise. I then asked whether it would like to share its true song with me. Nothing for about 25 minutes. Then I heard the song. With tears streaming down my face, I began to sing along out loud, gifting back the song that the place had been deprived of by my own kind.
This is simple healing work. Its not complicated to hear and sing the song of the land, but it does require patience, stillness and a willingness to listen deeply. As I learned today, it also requires the occasional breaking of rules – and the intuition to know when to do so.
Drizzle, the distant sounds of a tractor and the conversation of cows. An occasional sports car. But the Longstone of Minchinhampton is making more noise than any of them. Not audible to human ears, but I can feel it banging out a LOT of static.
I read in TheModern Antiquarian1 that the Longstone was used as a healing stone; apparently parents passed their offspring through the hole to cure childhood ailments. I’m not too sure I would. When I go to new places, I generally test the water before leaping in and so I cautiously closed my eyes and felt around with my inner ears. Almost immediately, I could hear the whoosh of a tunnel and then the sense of an all-encompassing void of silence. It wasn’t frightening exactly, because I felt in control. There was a nano-second where I knew I could rescind control and be taken on the journey of a lifetime. But not today. I opened my eyes and thanked the stone for giving me the choice. I then gave it a gentle pat and received a gentle electric shock in return.
1Cope, Julian The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey Through Megalithic Britain, 1998
After Climperwell, I drove to Painswick to see the famous clipped yews in St Mary’s churchyard. After the peace, quiet and joy of Climperwell, it was a shock. The churchyard seemed to be a major thoroughfare and there was the sound of a violin and piano practising in the church – probably Haydn, I should think. In a way, the stiff classical music fitted the restricted clipping of the yews, but it didn’t fit my mood. I’ve met a lot of churchyard yews in my time, but none of them were as silent as these. I couldn’t even get them to acknowledge me, let alone share a song. I guess they’ve had it clipped out of them, like a songbird in a cage. I left as people began queuing outside the church for the concert. There was nothing for me here.
It was a cold, blustery, bleak day when Apollo the nose-kissing Malamute hitched a ride on my back seat from a south London pound to Cheltenham Animal Shelter. Not an ideal day to go listening, but, I reasoned, at least not many people would want to be out and about so I may get some places to myself. So after dropping Apollo (and a piece of my heart) in Cheltenham, I went on a listening tour of Gloucestershire.
First on the list was Climperwell Spring, one of the sources of the Gloucestershire River Frome. As I drew near, I felt a sense of lightness and joy; even the light here was brighter. I felt immediately welcome. My delight was tempered somewhat by the sight of a man approaching from the opposite direction. To my shame, I sped up and, as was my intention, I reached the spring before he did. He continued walking past me. Result! I had the place to myself.
I sat in front of the spring and felt the same stirring of joy. I could hear a gallimaufry of birds and a far distant plane. The spring sang a song of youthful delight, adventure and promise. It invited me to ask for something I wanted. Oh, I don’t know, I replied, how about an unexpected gift?
After about 10 minutes, I looked over my shoulder and saw the man sitting on a wall. It was a respectful distance away, so I hadn’t even felt his presence. I got the sense that he was patiently waiting for me to finish. I took another five minutes to really savour the joy I could feel all around me and then, feeling that I had had my turn, I left. As a walked back to my car, I passed the man, who was eating a sandwich. “Thank you” I mouthed to him. He smiled and nodded back. When I got back to my car, I saw him put his half eaten sandwich away and set off toward the spring.
Peace. Quietude. Time and space to have a place all to myself. I had indeed been given an unexpected gift by a stranger.