Nothing wins hearts like cheerfulness – St. Dwynwen
The celebration of Dwynwen – the Welsh patron saint of lovers – takes place on January 25th. Not only does she command a unique day on the calendar, but Dwynwen surely lives on in cheerful spirit. Llanddwyn Island, the slim peninsular of land dedicated to her is so evocative, surely there has to be more than lava rock, saltmarsh and historic ruins here…
One of the 24 daughters of a Welsh prince, Dwynwen lived in the fifth century AD. She fell in love with a young man called Maelon but rejected his advances. This, depending on which story you read, was either because she wished to remain chaste and become a nun or because her father wished her to marry another. She prayed to be released from this unhappy situation and dreamed that she was given a potion to do this. However, the potion turned Maelon to ice. She then prayed that she be granted three wishes: 1) that Maelon be revived, 2) that all true lovers find happiness, and 3) that she should never again wish to be married. She then retreated to the solitude of Llanddwyn Island to follow the life of a hermit. Not so bad, then.
Dwynwen became known as the patron saint of lovers, and pilgrimages were made to her holy well on the island. It was said that the faithfulness of a lover could be divined through the movements of the eels that lived in the well. This was done by the woman first scattering breadcrumbs, then laying her handkerchief on the surface. If the eels disturbed it then her lover would be faithful. Visitors would leave offerings at this shrine, and so popular was this place of pilgrimage that it became the richest in the area during Tudor times. This funded a substantial chapel that was built in the 16th century. In 1879, a plain cross was erected in Dwynwen’s memory, followed by the Celtic cross in 1903. The medieval love poet Dafydd ap Gwilym first popularised her story in the 13th century, writing: ‘Dwynwen your beauty is like a silver tear. Your church is ablaze with candlelight.’ To see that church ablaze with candlelight against such a backdrop must have been beyond magical. But there is still magic to be found here.
The history behind these scattered ruins across a relatively small area of land, seems all the more poignant for their close proximity … a concentration of beauty and legend, history and romance. There’s a sense of shivery danger too when you learn that at certain high tides, the island is completely cut off from the mainland. And yet there’s a quaint coziness in the row of empty cottages – given over to a small maritime museum – the lighthouse and the boats. I was walking into a children’s adventure one moment, a grisly crime scene or a romantic mystery, the next. (Only in my imagination). And I was on a natural history tour too, scanning the coves for seals, cormorants, sandpipers and turnstones. The rock formations are pillow lava, formed by undersea volcanic eruptions; as the hot molten rock met the cold seawater a balloon-like skin was formed, which then filled with more lava, forming the characteristic pillow shape. These extend down much of the length of Llanddwyn Island, giving it its interesting rolling topography along the beach. These secret coves of washed sand, one after the other nestled into the cliffs were virtually undisturbed, even on a busy day. Combined with the two crosses set against the sky, the solitude lends the place a special peace, a mesmerising natural sanctuary.
No surprise then that the island has been used for various film sets. The lighthouse was built in 1845 in a style similar to Anglesey’s windmills. In 2004, it became a location for filming romantic thriller Half Light. From here there are fabulous views stretching to the misty hills and mountains of the Llyn Peninsula and Snowdonia.
According to Dwynwen nothing won the heart like cheerfulness. Where else can a writer, photographer, artist, nature lover, bird-watcher, walker or historian find such concentrated richness? I was left contemplating that historical novel, no, wait, I need to write a time-slip historical fantasy. Or the next Enid Blyton? Whatever the outcome, Llanddwyn certainly won my heart.
Words and photography by Jan Ruth.
Watch & Walk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s27z_gBHqek
Wild, Dark and Silent: A testimony to the Welsh Hills…
Wild Water is the story of Jack Redman, the wronged alpha male who’s trying to make the best decisions for his family but more often than not, gets kicked in the teeth. How often we read novels in the contemporary genres which consistently root for the female character – nothing wrong with a strong woman, of course – but no one seemed to be telling these stories from the male viewpoint, at least not twenty years ago when I began my quest. Divorce still seems heavily weighted towards the partner with the children, and the mother is usually awarded custody unless there are extenuating circumstances which can be proved. Most of the time this is all well and good, but there are a great number of cases where our ancient system is fully exploited. Sadly, a lot of the initial storyline was prompted by real-life experience but there’s no better starting point than this for fiction in the family-saga genre. Jack Redman is a victim not only of the court system injustices but of its inability to deal with the speed and complications of contemporary family life.
The Wild Water series is strongly rooted in Conwy, a medieval town in North Wales. In the main I’ve used real places, and I do love the mix of historical buildings as a backdrop to a modern tale. Links to Welsh history and heritage are unavoidable in Wales and it’s the visible remains of quarries, castles and farmsteads which give the area a strong sense of the past. And there’s richness in the landscape here which has certainly inspired my writing. St. Celynnin’s 12th century church in the hills for example, is an evocative piece of living history and a landmark which is included throughout the series. It’s exactly the sort of place Anna, with her natural spiritualism, might seek sanctuary. Nestled in the hills 927 feet above the sea, it’s pretty inaccessible and best approached on foot, but this is no great hardship.
Some of the area is chocolate-box pretty, a lot of it isn’t. The struggle to make a living in this community is mostly based on farming or tourism, although the mussel industry is alive and well. Since I know little about these subjects, Jack Redman emerged as an estate-agent. I like to be slightly unconventional with my characters because another great killer of readability is sameness, and cliche.
It was both daunting, and a pleasure to write the follow-up, Dark Water.The story picks up three years after the end of Wild Water and Jack is in for another bumpy ride. Dark Water is, as the title might suggest, a darker story partly because my writing style has changed over twenty years, but also because I introduced an element of crime. It’s too easy to become lazy with a sequel and repeat much of what has gone before. The resurgence of Simon Banks created plenty of tension, and a fresh challenge for me to write some of the story from his perspective. New characters such as Clarissa Harrison-Smith and Peter Claymore, breathed new life into the original cast. When I brought Claymore into the story, he had to have a purpose and a passion, and his persona took root in one of the most fascinating buildings in Conwy – sadly in a state of disrepair – but the real life situation fitted perfectly with what I had in mind for the plot.
This house was built in 1589 by the vicar of Conwy. Since then it’s been a pub, a tearoom and an antique shop. It’s full of spooky atmosphere with cellars, trapdoors and secret passages, and apparently there used to be an escape tunnel which led to the quay. Haunted? Most certainly! It’s exactly the sort of place someone like Claymore would want to renovate and bring to life, and the perfect setting for Anna to develop in her own right as a serious artist. Her portrait of Llewellyn the Great is the centrepiece of her launch but of course, this is fiction and nothing goes to plan! The comedy and tragedy of Jack’s life rumbles on. In his own words: ‘Raping and pillaging is still rife, even in the modern world.’
Relics of kings, wreck of forgotten wars, to the winds abandoned and the prying stars. Wordsworth, describing his visit to Castell Dinas Bran.
Castell Dinas Bran translates to English as: The Castle of the City of Crows. Perched on a conical hill above Llangollen, it enjoys aerial views and despite its dilapidated state, commands not only a strong historical presence, but also one of love, legend and fairytale. But don’t be fooled by the romance of it all, epic battles and crimes against king and country have plundered across these soils for centuries. If this was a walk through fiction, we could expect every genre under the sun. The name Llangollen is derived from the sacred enclosure of St Collen, who made a name for himself in the 7th century – both here, and on look-a-like Glastonbury Tor – for sorting out fairies gone bad, so I think we’re deep into fantasy before we even start to climb.
The castle’s first literary appearance is in a 12th-century historical document entitled ‘The Romance of Fulk FitzWarin.’ In this tale the castle is already referred to as a ruin during the early years of the Norman Conquest. It tells of an arrogant Norman knight, Payne Peveril. On hearing that no one had courage enough to stay overnight inside the castle ruins for fear of evil spirits, Peveril decided to take up the challenge, with 15 ‘knightly followers’. A storm blows up and a mace-wielding giant called Gogmagog, appears. Peveril defends his men against the attacks of the giant with his shield and cross, then stabs Gogmagog with his sword. As the giant is dying they hear the story of King Bran and his building of the castle in order to defeat the giant. Despite King Bran’s attempts against Gogmagog, the King had been forced to flee and since then the giant had terrorised all the land around for many years. In his final words, Gogmagog revealed that a great treasury of idols was buried at Dinas Bran which included swans, peacocks, horses and a huge golden ox, but in the true tradition of folklore … he died without revealing their location.
Dinas Bran wasn’t always a castle. The origins of this site go back to a Bronze Age fort, which was destroyed in some bloody battle, followed possibly by a wooden castle … which was also burnt down. This was followed by the 13th century stone version, until Edward 1st invaded in 1277 and it was destroyed again in another bloody battle, i.e: it was burnt down. Sadly, it was never repaired to full glory although the beautiful Myfanwy Fychan resided here in the 14th century. Her admirer, the poet Hywel ap Einion, wrote verse in praise of her, up in an oak tree on the slope of this hill. The final owner, Sir William Stanley from Chirk Castle was executed for his part in the rebellion against Henry 7th, and after his demise the castle’s only recorded inhabitant, was a fierce eagle.
One thing which hasn’t changed throughout the centuries: the view. It’s truly spectacular, a full 360° window across Wales, reaching out all the way towards the Shropshire Plain to the East and into Snowdonia to the West. We didn’t find the hidden treasures of Dinas Bran although according to legend you need a boy, and a white dog with a silver eye to have any sort of success rate. And it was so warm the day we made the climb, once atop we were content to sit and stare, rather than start digging. Even our Yorkies had turned to liquid (that’s the chocolate kind, not the small dogs). Unless … unless those fairies were up to some sort of Celtic mischief …
Words and photography by Jan Ruth
Beautiful is the large church, with stately arch and steeple. Neighbourly is the small church with groups of friendly people.
Reverent is the old church with centuries of grace, and a wooden church or a stone church can hold an altar place. And whether it be a rich church, or a poor church anywhere, truly it is a great church if God is worshipped there.
It’s a long, long climb from the village of Llanwrst but well worth the effort to scramble up through Gwydir Forest above the spa-town of Trefriw, to visit the oldest church in Wales, dated 11th century.
This remote location above the Conwy Valley may have been used for Christian worship since the 6th century. Rhychwyn, or Rhochwyn, was one of the 12 sons of Helig ap Glannog, who lost his court, known as Llys Helig, when the sea inundated it. As a result of this loss, the sons lived devout lives, some as monks. The church is also known as Llywelyn’s Old Church and the reference to age is perfectly justified. Llywelyn Fawr, Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Joan – the illegitimate daughter of King John of England – worshipped here in the early 13th century when they stayed at their Trefriw hunting lodge at nearby Lake Geirionnydd.
Joan, also known by her Welsh name Siwan, complained that the walk to church was tiring; 2km uphill from Trefriw followed by 2km downhill. It’s said that Llywelyn founded St Mary’s Church in Trefriw to save her this effort. Since we chose to walk this route on a humid summer’s day, I could fully sympathise with her! At least the long trail through Gwydir Forest was shaded. We passed several warning signs about the old mine workings in amongst the bracken and the broken stone walls. The heyday of metal mining here was between 1850 and 1919. Both timber and metal was transported from the forest to the quay at neighbouring Trefriw, from where it was shipped downstream to the coast. This historical industry is blamed for the lack of fish in Geirionnydd today: the result of the poisoning of the waters from the metal mines?
Interesting that there are literary connections to this diocese too, the most notable being Taliesin – a 6th-century Welsh bard living on the shores of the lake – and the earliest poet of the Welsh language whose work has survived.
Once out of the forest, the climb continues past hill farms and uphill through twisted iron kissing-gates, into fields where only sheep manage to remain upright. Any sign of the original settlements here have long gone and the historical relevance becomes more pronounced. Once the past is delved into, these cruel and pretty surroundings give tremendous weight to their own stories and I couldn’t wait to get inside the church. Although we were surrounded by the magnificence of Snowdonia the immediate location of this lovely building is rather nondescript, not as pretty as St Mary’s church on the river, nor does it hold the charm of St Celynin’s church in the hills. It seems tucked away in a corner and hidden by trees, and rather strangely, the back of the church faces outward. But the sense of history here is both compelling and unique. The ancient wooden door, complete with wooden hinges, closes behind you with a thunk, and those thick walls block out every sound apart from the wind as it continues to find a way through the innumerable gaps and crannies of the building. It really does feel like you’re inside a time capsule. The roof beams are some 800 years old and the bell is reputedly from Maenan Abbey. The east window has coloured images of the Virgin Mary and of the Holy Trinity. Apparently, this type of colouring is rare, and this example is probably the oldest of its kind in Wales. There are a number of dusty Welsh bibles still open on the creaking pulpit, and services are still held here despite its lack of nearby road or level track. There’s something mystical and magical about buildings as old as this, so I can fully understand why someone would still choose to attend a service here and brave the incline.
I think I spent almost as much time wandering in the churchyard and reading the wonky gravestones, bordering the path like a set of crooked teeth. No point looking for Llywelyn here… The church in Llanrwst is now famous for containing his carved stone coffin, whilst his wife rests in Beaumaris church on Anglesey. Although this was an arranged marriage, it was clearly a love story too. In 1230 William de Braose, a young Marcher Lord was discovered with Siwan in Llywelyn’s bedchamber. De Braose was hung for adultery and Siwan was placed on house-arrest for 12 months. In time, though, he came to forgive her and Siwan was restored to favour. She gave birth to a daughter in 1231 and died at the royal home at Abergwyngregyn, on the north coast of Gwynedd, in 1237.
As for Taliesin, he is at the bottom of the lake…
Words and photography by Jan Ruth.
Erotica: (from the Greek ἔρως, eros “desire”) is any artistic work that deals substantively with erotically stimulating subject matter. All forms of art may depict erotic content, including painting, sculpture, photography, drama, film, music or literature. Erotica has high-art aspirations, differentiating it from commercial pornography.
How dark can you take it?
High art. Does this apply to chocolate? In my opinion, it applies more to chocolate than a lot of literature. And if chocolate was graded according to fiction then surely it would have to be erotica? Award Winning Cathryn Cariad Chocolates are most certainly the high-art end of chocolate creation, removing themselves from the crude porn of supermarket chocolate bars and divulging our senses of the most sophisticated chocolate experience.
Cathryn Cariad chocolates are not bound by the conventional selection box either. Be prepared to delve into several sub-genres and rest assured that chocolate dragons will be someone’s erotic fantasy, but as you may expect, romance takes the biggest bite. And not just the chick-lit love of chocolate shoes and Champagne bottles – but a diverse and satisfying array of fillings expertly coupled with either white, milk or dark. Where to begin? Clearly, all of this needed researching thoroughly!
Chocolate has enjoyed longstanding stories of magical and mythical properties, so it’s only fitting that the name of the tree it comes from, Theobroma Cacao, means “food of the gods”. Ancient Mesoamerican art, depicting cacao gods and goddesses, rituals, and cacao in sacred caves and mountains, indicates the cacao tree may have been seen as connecting the gods and humans, heaven and earth. It seems perfectly fitting then that chocolate trees flourish only in the hot, steamy tropics; more specifically in a swathe roughly 20 degrees north and south of the Equator.
Of course, before the raw product arrives in Snowdonia the beans are harvested, fermented, roasted and graded according to quality. The process continues when the ‘nib’ is extracted and ground. This is called conching and produces cocoa and sugar particles smaller than the tongue can detect. The length of the conching process determines the smooth, sensuous quality of the finished product. After this, the chocolate can be liquefied, ready for blending and moulding, and the final seduction can begin.
Recently, I had the very great pleasure of meeting Master Chocolatier Cathryn O’ Connell, the founder of the award winning cottage industry in the heart of Snowdonia: Cathryn Cariad Chocolates. The products are handmade in a rather beautiful setting overlooking the Moelwyn mountain range and within earshot of several vocal hens, and more than one cockerel (all of whom, for ease of identification are named Brian). The local steam train tooted and chugged across the mountain in much the same way it had done for over a hundred years, as we talked about Snowdonia, the history of Cathy’s amazing property, books and … chocolate.
Ah, the chocolate room of pleasure! The full chocolate experience should start with light kissing: creamy white chocolates filled with lemon and Welsh lavender from Rhayader. Or maybe you’d rather explore the delicate laciness of wild elderflower. Too sweet? Progressing onto milk chocolate is a comfort zone enjoyed by many and the fillings are not quite so innocent and teasing. Homemade butter caramel and Welsh vanilla sea-salt. Purple Moose Ale, Brecon gin… Sooner or later, we arrive at the penultimate. The Dark. Warning: this strength of chocolate erotica is highly addictive. Rich, controlling, surprisingly diverse and not so sweet.
Dinner party mystery game. Want to play? First, employ a silk blindfold to concentrate the taste buds and raise the selected truffle to nose, and then palate. Now, can you identify the exact combination? Is it sloe gin with a secret layer of raspberry jelly, or maybe the dragon-roasted coffee? You surely wouldn’t mistake Welsh Dragon chilies with cinnamon and nutmeg – rich, aromatic spices with a kick of heat from the chilies – just the way the Aztecs liked it, apparently. And for the more experienced or to confuse the senses of a seasoned taster, try innocent virginal white chocolate and Welsh honey from Arthog, ruthlessly coated in devilishly dark chocolate. The masked one! Without a doubt, Cathryn Cariad Chocolates are an imaginative selection box of mystery and fantasy. It can most certainly be romantic and erotic. It has historical roots and global appeal, but will only perform at its best when we understand the science fiction of it all.
Try a dark, dark salted caramel and wait for the full sensory experience, or a creamy milk truffle filled with blackberry brandy… go on. It would be criminal not to.
A circular walk of 10 miles including 1,500 feet of elevation overall. Start Point: The wildlife reserve car park at Trwyn yr Wylfa, Cemaes Bay, Anglesey. LL67 ODH. Map References: SH: 35619-93789 or Lat: 53.415189 Lon: -4.474820
A circular route utilising much of the Anglesey coastal path. Spectacular scenery – on a sunny day the area takes on a Mediterranean feel with bright turquoise seascapes, coloured rocks, soaring white gulls, and if you’re lucky – seals and porpoises. Worth noting that it’s possible to shorten this route by making the start point at Cemaes Bay village at point 3 and reducing the overall mileage by approx 4 miles, without missing the most scenic parts of the walk.
There’s plenty of historical points of interest in this area too, and the best place to see the Gwna Melange – an unusual combination of ancient rocks created by an underwater landslip. In fact, the whole of the island is a designated European Geopark so a veritable playground for those interested in geology, including White Lady’s Rock; a triangular-shaped slab of rock which once formed part of an arch but was quarried extensively in Victorian times for its quartz. Only ruins remain of Porth Llanlleiana, used for the production of china clay, and further on, evidence of the area’s industrial heritage in the form of winding gear which was used to lower quartzite, used in the production of bricks, down to the works at Porth Wen. Production ceased at the start of WW1 but the site is still an evocative piece of history in a breathtaking setting.
Take the footpath by two brick pillars and pass through a metal kissing-gate, walking up through a small copse onto the headland. The way may seem indistinct here as planning for a second phase of the power station has altered the landscape. Walk towards the sea and head to the right, passing through several wooden gates whilst following the blue coastal path markers – towards a small cove and the outskirts of Cemaes village.
The route continues close to several coastal properties. Still following the blue coastal markers, take a gravelled path to the right, turning right again at the finger-post sign. Walk between the stone walls then turn left down a slope to the shore. The blue markers are set into the pavement here and lead up through the village.
In the centre of Cemaes village, turn left at Bridge Street, opposite Ye Olde Vigour pub. Bear left at the next finger-post towards the harbour, and a short promenade. Turn left at the National Trust finger-post signed for Llanbadrig and Penrhyn Mawr, and follow the steep track up between blackberry bushes, passing through a wooden gate onto the headland.
Go through the next wooden gate to the right, which leads down a dip and back up the other side, passing an old kiln set into the hillside. Continue to follow the track until you reach White Lady’s Rock. Turn right here towards a wooden gate, arriving on a single-track road.
Turn left on the road and walk a short distance to reach Llanbadrig Church: the oldest Christian site in Wales. Locate a stone stile consisting of steps set into the boundary wall of the church and climb over this – turning right – to pick up the coastal path again along the headland.
From here, it’s a straightforward walk along the cliffs, the route eventually dropping down towards Porth Llanileiana via steep steps. Climb the zigzag path back up the other side to reach the top of Dinas Cynfor and the ruins of a hill fort, and a watchtower. Distant views reveal the Skerries, Middle Mouse, Point Lynas, East Mouse, and on a clear day, the Isle of Man.
From the watchtower, follow the headland again, the route dropping down towards Hell’s Mouth – a deep inlet – and back up the other side. Cross a wooden stile and climb a steep winding track to the top of the hill. From here, follow a wide, grassy track as it heads towards Porth Wen bay.
The brickworks come into view on the left – if you don’t mind exploring uneven ground it’s worth scrambling down to take a look – otherwise, continue along the grassy track, passing through a gate and following the route as it bears right and then left, eventually ending at a single-track road. Turn right. Walk for almost a mile, then on a right-hand bend look for a footpath on the left.
Go over the stile into fields, passing over a stream via a wooden bridge. The footpath is clearly marked and continues through a section of private garden then once through the next gate, keep right along the lower footpath. Continue until this path ends at a single-track road. Turn right then at the T junction, turn left and after approx a mile, you’ll be back at the harbour in Cemaes. Retrace your steps back to the car park.
The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.
The Carneddau Ponies of Snowdonia.
The summit of Drum, a small peak nestled in the Carneddau range of Snowdonia, North Wales, can be an inhospitable, dangerous place. On day two of the annual pony-gathering a heavy shroud of fog obscured the dense landmass to within a few feet. Someone once said, ‘It’s the centuries of men’s hands on the stones that puts the heart into a place.’ The beating heart of the Carneddau for me, has to be the wild ponies, and they were the reason I found myself on top of a bleak mountain in the Welsh hills in November, 2014. The ponies of the Carneddau have access to some 27,000 acres, and there are less than 200 of them out there… somewhere. Ancestors would likely have used dogs and followed on horseback but sadly, modern times dictated the use of quad bikes and scramblers.
The rest of us walked, across a vast mattress of sodden heather. Within the hour though, the sun pierced through the fog and it dispersed like skeins of gossamer, revealing the full majesty of the Welsh hills and the Irish Sea. This dramatic landscape marches towards the foothills of Snowdon in one direction, and in the other falls in a crumpled stone-hewn scree to the west coast. It is both magical, and awe-inspiring. Add into this mix the sound of drumming hooves and you can feel the beating heart of this place match your own. Too whimsical? Probably, but the sight of these spirited ponies galloping across the heather, manes and tails flying; is a hugely emotional sight.
The romance and beauty of the Welsh hills is well documented, but some of the hill farmers are struggling to find definition in an increasingly faster, more cosmopolitan world. Despite this, there are 350 years of family history behind their passion for the hills, the ponies and their way of life. Scattered across these hillsides the remains of farming settlements, Roman forts and the slate industry epitomize the hardships, the triumphs and the disasters – but this history is part of our roots and part of what defines us. I love the honesty of this way of life, but like millions of other people feel powerless to nurture it when something fails to protect those issues which are out of our control. In the past – and we have to acknowledge our farmers have been through desperate times – the ponies have been collected off the mountain and herded into meat wagons.
Now though, I read somewhere that these ponies fetch less than a fiver at market. If something doesn’t bring financial reward, the worth of it is compromised – which is perhaps a sign of our times. And it’s disappointing that there’s a red tape fight over DNA proof to achieve rare-breed status – and therefore some protection – for this unique bloodline of Welsh Mountain ponies, a pure line which is specific to the Carneddau. I feel justified to feel both whimsical and passionate about the ponies fate and concerned for the welfare of these animals, left to survive on their own wits through sometimes intolerable winter conditions. And although it is this very hardiness which makes them what they are, I do find it sad that the larger welfare and equine bodies don’t recognise a need to support and sustain this breed by at least maintaining and documenting the bloodlines.
For the uninformed, the native Welsh Mountain pony is a larger, more elegant version of the Shetland. The Shetland was epitomized by Thelwell – short legs, profuse mane and tail and as stubborn as they were fiery, depending on mood and opportunity. The seven Mountain and Moorland ponies of Great Britain were considered to be the hardy ground stock of children’s riding ponies the world over and crossed with larger, finer breeds to produce, well, anything you wished for. Emotional bonds have a value of their own which is difficult to define. I’ve been around horses for 50 years – although, coming from a working-class background where money was tight, I wasn’t born into a situation which easily accommodated them. Every Saturday, I would cycle fifteen miles with my father to have a riding lesson on a Welsh Mountain pony called Merrylegs. In the early sixties we were taught to stay on by clamping a threepenny-bit between our knees and the saddle. If it was still there after an hour, we got to keep it. Thankfully, gripping-on is no longer considered good practice! Ironic too, that the three-penny bit is extinct.
As a child around ponies, I learnt how everything was connected by a purpose and why even small things should be respected, because there’s a reason they are there. (Sharing this landscape with several thousand head of sheep impacts on the benefits of cross-grazing, the ponies eat the vegetation the sheep won’t and vice-versa, the parasites which develop in sheep are inhibited by the ponies and vice-versa.) I learnt how to give and take, I learnt that physical knocks or disabilities were not a barrier to success. My friend at the time – at age ten – had one-and-a-bit-arms. One side of the reins would be up round an amputated stump, but she was a more effective rider than I.
I learnt respect and humility, and all those invisible things we maybe cannot quantify or explain, but we know are there. But above all, I learnt to love the hills.
WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY by Jan Ruth
Aerial footage of the 2014 gathering: http://vimeo.com/112336601
The only historical event I can remember with any accuracy is good old 1066 and The Battle of Hastings. At school I was hopeless at dates, in fact anything to do with numbers, but I used to love history because sooner or later it usually involved writing essays. Now though, I suspect there may be more to it. The longer I live and the more places I visit in the world, the more connected I feel to my roots, or more specifically my spiritual home, Snowdonia.
Twenty years ago we moved from Cheshire to North Wales. Although Cheshire has its history and pretty rural surroundings aplenty, Wales is far more extreme in both aspects. The castles and the rugged hillsides strewn with stone settlements, druid circles and Roman roads bring out the historical muse in me. To think that I am treading the same path as someone who lived in the Iron Age, is both fascinating and humbling. Snowdonia kick-started my stalled obsession with writing in a very positive way.
All this whimsical talk of the past makes me sound as if I write historical-based fiction. Far from it. Much as I admire many other genres I tend to be very much rooted in current times and my work reflects a lot of my own life experiences. But this is where I find the two ideas merge a little because I am most certainly inspired by this Ice Age landscape. What has gone before certainly shapes what we see today, but does it shape what we feel, too?
There’s no doubt I’m in my creative comfort zone tramping up the hills on a moody day. There’s no better way of busting that plot. Dedicated to a 6th century prince, this tiny church is a great find for historians, spiritualists, all kinds of artists, and a certain weary walking writer. This church is mentioned in the Wild Water series and I’ve spent many an hour soaking up the atmosphere. It’s quite a climb, some 900 feet above the village of Henryd, but sheltered from the Irish Sea by the comfortable bulk of Tal-Y-Fan. It proclaims to be the most remote church in Wales and due to its location on the Pilgrim’s Way, it is actually better accessed on foot or on horseback, but that’s just me wearing my whimsical hat again. I guess you could ride a quad bike or get a 4×4 along the green lane (originally the coffin path) up from the village, but that would spoil the experience considerably. The centuries of men’s hands on the same stones put the feeling into a place. I can relate to this and there’s no better way of making that connection than scrambling over those very same walls and finding a way across the hills. Even the names of the mountains are laced with enough magic to fuel the effort.
A small and simple building, Llangelynnin church probably dates from the 12th century (although some sources cite the 13th century), and was likely pre-dated by an earlier church of timber, or wattle and daub construction. Llangelynnin is also the name of the former parish, the primary school in nearby Henryd (Ysgol Llangelynnin). Celynin’s name is also carried by Craig Celynin, a mountain ridge adjacent to the church. Inside the building, there are inscriptions on the white-washed walls of The Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer, and strangely enough a skull and crossbones. The Welsh language, being the oldest (still spoken) language in the world, lends so much more romance and intrigue to any story, even though I don’t understand all the words. One of the well-preserved benches is dated from 1629 and dedicated to Reverend Owen Bulkeley, former rector. Oh, I’d love to go back to those times just for a few hours, to maybe listen to the man reading his sermon and sit with the congregation. Instead, we have to be content with mere historical recordings and the remnants of those times, in whatever form they take.
Close by are the remains of an inn and a cock-fighting pit – if you know what to look for. Easier to see is St Celynin’s Holy Well. Sick children were often brought to these holy waters for a diagnosis whereby an item of the patient’s clothing would be flung into the water. If the clothing floated, then the child would recover…
I love the way ancient history here is often blurred by myths and legends, shape-shifters and superstitions. Rich then, in history and romance and easy enough to blend both, with a touch of fantasy and suspense. Especially so when the winter sun is low in the sky, sending out early shadows to creep across the crooked stones of derelict homesteads and graves. And late sunsets in summer, when the scudding clouds floating in a fiery sky take on the shape of dragons and rearing horses. Or maybe, when the druid’s circle is shrouded in mist and… can you hear something? Like the clink of marching armour and the clash of swords…there’s something moving out there, or is it just my imagination?
Words and photography by Jan Ruth