Nith’s Estuary

After visiting the site of the Battle of Arfderydd, we chose to stay in the Nith Hotel at the mouth of the estuary as it was close to Caerlaverock and because I wondered whether, like Neath, there was a connection with Nudd and his son, Gwyn. I went with no strong expectations or feelings.

When we arrived at the car park I was utterly blown away. Clouds dark blue and dappled silver were reflected perfectly in still quiet waters. Splitting the silence hollering overhead flew drove after drove of barnacle geese following the river’s course then disappearing from sight at the estuary.

Earlier we had accidentally spooked a field filled with these magnificent birds. With barking cries and clamouring wings they took off flashing black and white, ascending into hurtling v’s.Shortly afterward a covey of swans flew over honking deep and resonant calls.

SwansIn the folklore of Wales, northern England (and beyond) ‘the Wild Hunt’ is associated with flights of swans and geese. Gwyn is one of its leaders. The term is usually limited to instances where the birds cannot be seen and those who hear them fear for their lives and souls.

My experience in this case was more of beauty than terror. The estuary of the Nith where sky met river and Criffel displayed its otherside in the lucid water was clearly a liminal place. There was something deeply magical about the passing birds and their wild song.

This reminded me a translation of Annwn (the Brythonic ‘otherworld’ Gwyn rules) is ‘the deep’. Annwn as hidden depth has intriguing resonances with the sound of ‘Nudd’. Onomatopoeically it links not only to Neath and Nith but the concepts beneath, underneath and the netherworld. This evening showed Annwn’s depth is immanent in this-world and can be experienced here.

Later on the brink of sleep I found myself thinking of Nudd / Nodens’ temple on the estuary of the river Severn. People made votive offerings to him as a god of hunting, healing and dream then slept in a designated space and priests interpreted their dreams in the morning.

Recently I discovered Nudd is not only the name of a family of Brythonic gods but also a human family name. Dreon ap Nudd fought on the dyke of Arfderydd not far from the Nith. His father, Nudd Hael, is included in the genealogies of the Men of the North. In the Yarrow valley lies a memorial stone to ‘the illustrious princes Nudus and Dumnogenus. In this tomb lies the son of Liberalis.’ Tim Clarkson says ‘Nudus is a Latinisation of Nud or Nudd.’

It seems possible this ancient northern family derived their name from Nodens / Nudd and that he was their ancestral deity and they may have served him in a similar way to the priests on the Severn. Preparing to slip into the netherworld, ‘the land of Nod,’ I wondered how many other worshippers of Nudd and his kindred had slept on Nith’s estuary.

In the morning when I awoke the barnacle geese were flying back up river to feed on the fields and salt marsh. Several groups landed on the banks and by making a careful approach we managed to draw close enough to photograph them.

Barnacle GeeseBarnacle geese possess some fascinating folklore. It was once believed they grew on driftwood like barnacles hanging down from their beaks until they grew a coat of feathers and were ready to fly away. Their growth from barnacles in summer explained why they only appeared as birds in the winter months.

Visiting the Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust we found out the ‘real’ reason they can only be seen in winter. Barnacle geese incubate their eggs and raise their goslings in Svalbard in Norway between May and September when the Gulf Stream melts the ice. As winter approaches they fly 3000 km south to the Solway Firth.

In the 1940’s there were only 300 birds. Due to the work of the trust there are now over 30,000. However, if global warming continues it is possible that ice melting early in Svalbard will leave their eggs vulnerable to being eaten by polar bears.

As well as finding out more about barnacle geese we got to see whooper swans up close at feeding time. Whooper swans are another over-wintering bird who fly in from Iceland and can be told apart from mute swans by their yellow beaks.

Whooper SwansIt is my growing intuition that Gwyn, as a god of winter, may have a connection with birds over-wintering in Britain and that this would vary from place to place.

Enchanting the Shadowlands: Lorna Smithers

lornasmithers:

This is the second review I’ve had of Enchanting the Shadowlands in the last two days (!) from Elen Sentier. I was particularly touched by it as Elen has a lasting relationship with Gwyn ap Nudd, which she speaks about in Elen of the Ways, and says ‘Lorna’s poetry leads me across new thresholds to meet him in new ways’ and that she plans to take the book to Dunkery Beacon, one of Gwyn’s mountains. Coincidentally, when I was Bardic Co-ordinator for the Druid Network, I discovered and re-published Elen’s story Walking with Dragons where she tells how a vision on Dunkery Beacon involving Elen, Gwyn and Ceridwen and ‘ghostly spider’s web criss-crossing the hills’ inspired her to walk the dragon-ways. Best of wishes for your return to Dunkery, Elen.

Originally posted on Elen Sentier:

Enchanting the ShadowlandsI love this collection of poems and short stories. Lorna Smithers gathered the poems in Enchanting the Shadowlands from her local landscape after being called by our Brythonic god, Gwyn ap Nudd.

Gwyn, for me, is a liminal god, a guardian of thresholds. Lorna’s poetry leads me across new thresholds to meet him in new ways. It’s a book that will travel with me down to Exmoor and Dunkery Beacon, the highest hill on the moor and one of my favourite places. It’s also one of Gwyn’s mountains, one of his places that I visit every time I’m down there.

I thoroughly recommend this book of poems.

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Enchanting the Shadowlands

lornasmithers:

This is the third positive review I have had of Enchanting the Shadowlands, from Nimue Brown at Druid Life. Nimue speaks of her connection with the landscape and ancestral aspects of the collection and suggests it would inspire others setting out to explore and give voice to their localities.

Originally posted on Druid Life:

I’ve been following Lorna Smithers’ blog for some time now, so when I heard she had put together an anthology of poetry, I went straight over to Lulu and ordered a copy. It’s taken me a while to get a review together, not least because I do not like to read poetry quickly. One or two at a time and then space to ponder is my preferred approach. Consequently I don’t get through poetry at the same pace a prose book of this size would allow. I like that about poetry, I value the slowing down and the encouragement to savour and reflect.

Lorna is a skilful poet, who crafts exquisitely with language. If you like beautiful wordcraft, I expect you are going to like this collection. As a writer and a teller of tales, Lorna has an amazing ability to get inside a story, a person or a worldview…

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Gods and Radicals

alley-fistI’ve recently become a contributor to a new web-site called Gods and Radicals, which was founded on the Spring Equinox by Rhyd Wildermuth. Its aim is to unite Pagan writers and activists in ‘beautiful resistance’ to capitalism. I am hoping it will provide a space where Pagans can share their relationships with their lands, gods and ancestors within the context of the social and political realities of the modern world and explore how to oppose capitalism and find alternatives.

Today I shared my poem, Proud of Preston, which is a call to the city’s people in the voice of Belisama, the goddess of the river Ribble. The opening piece was by Jason Pitzl and is titled Respectability Politics: Act Like the System So The System Will Listen?

Interview with Christopher Blackwell for ACTION Magazine

Earlier this year, I was interviewed by Christopher Blackwell of ACTION Magazine. ACTION is a publication by AREN (Alternative Religions Education Network), a national Pagan rights organisation.

This interview originated from a question Christopher posed on the Pagan Federation Facebook Group. He had been interviewing ‘hard’ polytheists in the US and was asking whether there were any similar movements in the UK. I replied that I had been involved with Dun Brython, a group of Brythonic polytheists and reconnectionists for a couple of years and he asked to interview me.

This is my first ever interview (!). I speak about my background, poetry and writing, my relationships with Gwyn ap Nudd and other deities and my voluntary work for UCLan Pagan Society, The Druid Network, Moon Books, Preston Poets’ Society and as an Interfaith worker.

In this issue, Christopher has also interviewed Lee Davies, an early and leading member of Dun Brython and Linda Sever who is chair of UCLan Pagan Society and a Heathen and Seidr practioner. There are also interviews with Black Witch, Alison Leigh Lilly, Stephen Cole and David Parry.

Here is a link to the Ostrara edition: http://www.aren.org/newsletter/2015-ostara/index.html

Wild Cherry and Birch Trees

Forgotten Arfderydd and the Hearsay of Corvids

Last Saturday I set out north to the site of the Battle of Arfderydd. At the forefront of my mind was the matter of forgetting.

If Arfderydd was significant enough to be recognised as one of Three Futile Battles of Britain, if it was where Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king of the Old North, made his final stand and one hundred and sixty men lost their lives before he died and three hundred after and where Myrddin Wyllt went mad, why no marker of the site? Why no songs? Why has Arfderydd been forgotten?

Considering Gwyn ap Nudd stated his presence at Gwenddolau’s death and at the deaths of other northern warriors and the episode where he abducts Creiddylad, Gwythyr and his (mainly northern) supporters takes place in the Old North why has his memory faded from the minds of the people of northern Britain?

In search of clues, a friend and I travelled north to Longtown and set off on foot up Netherby Road, consciously following in the footsteps of William Skene and Nikolai Tolstoy. The first place we visited was Netherby Hall, the mansion of the Graham family built on the site of the Roman fort Castra Exploratum. An altar dedicated to a god called Vitris and ram-horned head carved from local red sandstone found nearby suggest it was the location of a Romano-British cult.

Netherby HallAs we approached from the south Netherby Hall’s sandstone walls came into view atop a prominent ridge with polygonal towers, parapets and scaffolding. An encircling wire fence said strictly out of bounds. Following the path round the mansion we passed a woodland carpeted with snowdrops and trees stacked with rooks’ nests filled with noisy, vocal, raucous birds

Never before had I seen many rooks or heard such a racket. Their croaking and cawing see-sawed in my mind like something trying to break through. Unfortunately I don’t speak very good rook. Yet the rooks seemed important. More important than the blank face of the mansion and its ‘Private’ sign.

We rejoined the main road and headed north for Carwinley. When Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) told St Kentigern of his guilt at the deaths of the combatants and vision of a host of warriors (who I believe to be Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn) he stated the battle took place ‘in the field between Liddel and Carnwanolow.’ Skene identified Liddel with Liddel Water and Carnwanolow as Caer Gwenddolau and connected this with Carwinley.

Passing Carwinley cottage, farm and water mill we looked down into the sandstone gulley of the burn, steep banks green with ferns, onto shining reddish water. I recalled Andrew Breeze’s interpretation of Arfderydd as ‘burning weapon’ relating to this bloody stream forming the parish of Arthuret’s boundary. Breeze said ‘Car’ need not mark a fort but a defensive stockade. It certainly seemed possible the burn was named after Gwenddolau’s fall.

Carwinley BurnThe Triads of Ancient Britain also mention ‘the retinue of Dreon the Brave at the Dyke of Arfderydd.’ Dreon ap Nudd is the son of Nudd Hael. If this etymological link to Gwyn ap Nudd (and his father Nudd or Nodens) suggests an ancient connection between a northern family and their ancestral deities it is no surprise Gwyn and his host appeared at the battle where Dreon and his retinue met their end.

As I pondered whether the ‘Dyke’ they fought on was above Carwinley Burn I saw crows over the trees who shouted and cawed then pitched their games across a sky of constant silver-grey cloud. A sky of concealing. A sky of protection. A sky of no openings onto crashing visions of warriors.

Fields of Arfderydd

 

As we passed the green and well-tilled-over crow-haunted fields the dead did not rise. There were no whispers, no warnings, only the hearsay of corvids.

 

Upper Moat

 

At Upper Moat where reputedly the three hundred men who fought after Gwenddolau’s death were buried there was no sign of the orchard Skene mentioned but crows filled the trees in the background.

Our final destination was Liddel Strength, a motte and bailey which might have been the location of Gwenddolau’s fort and where his ‘Faithful War Band’ could have made their last stand, fighting for a month and a fortnight after the death of their leader. Unable to find our way we were directed by a local farmer (coincidentally Skene was directed by a farmer from Upper Moat too!) onto a shooter’s path which climbed steeply beside Liddel Water.

On the way we encountered a line of not-dead reeds hauntingly reminiscent of flags or ribboned spears blowing in the wind on an abandoned battlefield. Or of forlorn warriors.

Reeds of ArfderyddThe site of Liddel Strength was badly eroded by the river and appallingly overgrown. Breaching the defensive ditch we scrambled through hat-snatching hawthorns and ankle-snagging brambles up the motte which didn’t feel overly welcoming in its firm return to nature. There were no crows but a bird of prey screeched somewhere out of sight reminding me of Gwenddolau’s birds who fed on the corpses of the Britons.

Looking down from the summit Liddel Water flowed far below at the foot of a slope impossible to ascend. Fields and woodland stretched out before us. The land seemed as determined in swallowing time as it was in absorbing the abandoned railway track Skene arrived on two hundred years ago. On our return journey only the bridge and fragments of the embankment remained.

The dereliction of Liddel Strength contrasted sharply with Caer Laverock Castle (the ‘Lark’s Nest’ Arfderydd was supposedly fought over) which we visited the next day. This splendid medieval stronghold belonging to the Maxwell family was well preserved by the National Trust. Its siege by the English immortalised in the ‘Song of Caerlaverock’ was reconstructed on a video in the display rooms.

Caer Laverock CastleCrows flocked in the trees and played over its terraces. South was an earlier fort closer to the Solway Firth, an artist’s representation showed the higher sea levels and its importance as a strategic location.

Heading north again we climbed Ward Law, a lookout point where the Maxwell Clan gathered shouting their battle cry: “Wardlaw! I bid ye bide Wardlaw!” Beyond was another Roman camp invisible from the ground.

Ward LawLooking south from Ward Law to Solway Firth for the first time the all-encompassing silver-grey clouds broke. Seeing clear light and waters ablaze with cold fire I was reminded of the unendurable brightness Myrddin saw as Gwyn approached with the hosts of Annwn. The otherworld opening only just beyond the sands and tides of this-world.

Solway FirthI left with intuitions but no answers about Gwyn and his kindred, battles, forgetting, clouds and corvids… another part of this story waits to be told about the estuary of the river Nith and I shall be sharing this in my next post…

SOURCES

Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Clarkson, Tim The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (John Donald, 2010)
Heron (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Ross, Anne Pagan Celtic Britain (Cardinal, 1974)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

Sandham Memorial Chapel, Manchester Art Gallery

Snowdrops in Sandbags outside Manchester Art GalleryWhite the snowdrops in garden and park.
White for peace and white for hope.

White on the bunker in sandbags they grow
to whiten the way to Sandham Chapel.

White the walls (though the windows are dark).
White the intent to paint a memorial

of white sheets and white wash, soap and suds:
daily regimes bring us closer to God.

White the scrubbing. White the baking.
White the endless sleeping and waking.

White the buzz in the back of the head.
White the cocoons of mosquito nets.

White the devotion. White the will
to wipe the mind with the daily drill.

Not-white the wounds. Not-white the skin.
Not-white the war and the world we live in.

White the eruptions of angel wings.
White the colour of crucifixes

borne through a salient of fire and blood
and offered up to a not-white God.

White the high altar. White the bread.
White the magic of resurrection.

Not-white the pain of a broken nation.
Not-white the sigh and the scream unexpressed.

White the pardons. White the excuses.
White this March too late for white rabbits.

White my forgotten god of the dead.
White my need to honour them.

***

I wrote this poem after visiting Manchester for the first time in a long while and being struck by its transformation into Snowdrop City (in September 2014 snowdrops were planted across the city in commemoration of the First World War) and by the effect of visiting the ‘Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War’ exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery.

The latter was a temporary installation from Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire. The chapel was built to honour the forgotten dead of the First World War. The murals inside it were painted by Stanley Spencer and depict his experiences working on the Salonika Front as a medical orderly and soldier.

The murals depict scenes of everyday life; getting up, eating, washing, collecting water, the treatment of wounds, making beds. They are adorned with intriguing paradisal details; glimpses of angel’s wings, a man sprouting wings likes colinders, flowers growing from flesh. Each scene is framed within a heavenly archway. The pure horror of war is expressed only by Spencer’s strange distortions of human forms and features.

As I walked around the gallery-made-chapel a video played over and again on a loop every two minutes. Each time, a particular sentence about Spencer seeing these daily routines as bringing him closer to God kept echoing in my head. It jarred. Whilst I felt respect for Spencer’s wish to honour the forgotten people who had worked behind the scenes in the First World War, I struggled to comprehend his depictions of their work as heavenly and of soldiers offering their lives to Christ or God, leading to eventual resurrection.

The Resurrection of the Soldiers by Sir Stanley Spencer, CBE,RA (Cookham 1891¿ Cliveden 1959)

‘The Resurrection of the Soldiers’ http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/790185

As my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ is associated with the otherworld and the war-dead in ancient British mythology, I was also led to ponder when, why and how he and his mythos were replaced by the Christian paradigm and the ways our relationships with the gods and understanding of the afterlife affect our attitudes towards war and peace, life and death. This poem was written as a knee-jerk response to my thoughts and feelings.