Saint Winefrede's Well

St Winefride’s Well, Holywell, Flintshire

Was it everything I said?

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. 

Votive Candles

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.”

Saint Winefrede's Well

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.

Bala Lake

Llyn Tegid, Bala, Gwenydd

Shining brows and orange clouds

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.

Sunset Over Bala Lake

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.

Bedd Taliesin

Bedd Taliesin, Llangynfelyn, Ceredigion

cow intimidation and forgetting to listen

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.

Sarn Elen
Sarn Elen – The Road Not Travelled

 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.

Cows on the Black Road

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.

Taliesin Stone

Strata Florida Abbey, Tregaron, Ceredigion

Bardic Inspiraton

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:

Strata Florida

“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.

Daffyd's Yew
Dafydd’s Yew

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.

1 Poetry from Strata Florida: An Anthology of work inspired by the Ystrad Fflur landscape, 1350-2013, edited by Martin Locock

Henry Vaughn Physic Garden

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

Singing the Words Home

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.

Harold Stones

Harold’s Stones, Trellech, Monmouthshire

How Not to Listen to the Land

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.

King Arthur’s Cave, The Doward, Herefordshire

knowing when not to listen

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.

Loch Tay, Kenmore, Perthshire

Bringing folk songs back to the land

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.

The Silent Pool

The Silent Pool, Shere, Surrey

one woman’s ScREED against aggressive noise

“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. 

1 Krause, Bernie Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Natural World, 2016, page 16

Ambresbury Banks

Ambresbury Banks, Epping Forest, Essex

Breaking my own listening rules

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.