Kingfisher in Flight

For Brian Taylor

An unexpected kingfisher.

I might not have been there
in the hide if it wasn’t for you,
your teachings on the agency of birds,
the transformations of souls,
auspices of sapphire-blue.

The sad news was unexpected too.

It took me back to our brief meetings:
how you always wore binoculars,
showed me my first goosander.

I thought I’d never see a kingfisher
let alone a halcyon wonder so close
whistling from branch to branch.

You’d have called it ‘a showing’.

I e-mailed you to share the news.

Another e-mail flash from the blue
jolts me back to your careful records
on alcedo atthis and ‘the best views’.

You wrote of death with such beauty
citing Ovid’s resurrection of Alcyone:

a kingfisher in flight – ‘a departing light’.

Kingfisher in Flight


Brian Taylor, a dedicated animist and the author of Animist Jottings, passed away on the 13th of February. I was particularly moved by Brian’s writings on kingfishers and admired his advocation of an animism deeply rooted in the natural world that had room for magical encounters and the otherworldly too. Although we only met in person a few times (most memorably when he came to Penwortham and pointed out a goosander on the Ribble and when we visited Bridestones and marvelled at the expressions of the rocks and the flying ants) we shared many fruitful conversations in the blogosphere and through e-mail. Brian was one of the wisest, most caring, thoughtful, and articulate people I have ever met. He will be missed.

Picture with Brian Taylor Bridestones 5th September 2014
Brian Taylor and myself at Bridestones, September 5th, 2014
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Written in the Bedrock

I. Sherwood Sandstone

Sherwood Sandstone (I think!)

250 million years ago the island we now know as Britain was part of the supercontinent of Pangaea and lay close to the equator. The landscape and weather could not have been more different. The sun beat down on an arid desert swept by the north east trade wind.

Dunes rose and fell. Wind-rippled pavements were covered over. Sand sank, was buried, heated, compressed. The miniscule grains of sand were cemented together by water charged with minerals such as quartz and feldspar which crystallised to form basins of rock.

This rock is called Sherwood Sandstone because it lies beneath Sherwood Forest. It also forms the bedrock of Preston and its surrounding area. Now overlain by glacial deposits of sand, clay, and gravel, it can be seen in the bed of the Ribble from Penwortham Bridge.

Sherwood Sandstone in Ribble from Penwortham Bridge (with ducks)

II. The North West’s Most Important Aquifer

The porosity and permeability of Sherwood Sandstone make it an excellent groundwater aquifer. It is capable of holding vast amounts of water. The sandstone aquifer beneath Preston and its surroundings is classified by the Environment Agency as ‘a primary aquifer’ and Professor David Smythe states it is ‘the most important aquifer in the North West of England’.

A look at the old maps and research into the history of the area reveals a plethora of holy wells: natural springs bearing clean pure water from this miraculous water-holding bedrock. Many possessed healing properties, were dedicated to saints, and were sites of pilgrimage.

Because of the large number of holy wells Preston was considered to be an especially sacred place. This is evidenced by its Old English name, Preosta Tun, ‘Priest Town’. Preston’s sanctity is founded on the Sherwood Sandstone laid down 250 million years ago. It is written in the bedrock.

III. Water Worship

The Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who knapped flints on the flats between the Ribble and Darwen at Walton-le-dale no doubt paused, drank, bathed, and worshipped at the local springs. The Bronze Age village on Penwortham Marsh was located near the springs on Castle Hill.

The ancient Britons revered their water-courses as deities. In 2AD Ptolemy recorded that the Ribble was known as Belisama, ‘Most Shining One’ or ‘Most Mighty One: an immense goddess with the power to sustain life or take it away. Each spring had its deity. In Iron Age society their stories were kept alive by Bards and Druids performed their rites.

Springs were believed to flow from Annwn, ‘the Deep,’ the Otherworld. Its sparkling caverns and chthonic rivers might be seen as a macrocosm of the porous spaces between particles of sand and quartz where life giving waters are stored – the regenerative womb of an ancient goddess.

IV. Holy Wells

Between the 4th and 7th centuries many of the springs were rededicated to Christian Saints. The large number of Marian dedications – to St Mary and Our Lady – in the Preston area may be based on the association of the springs with mother goddesses dating back many thousands of years.

In the medieval period religious communities grew up around the holy wells and became important places of pilgrimage. St Mary’s Church and Priory were built on Castle Hill near St Mary’s Well, which had healing qualities. Preston Friary was next to Ladywell. Ladywell Shrine was established next to another well at Fernyhalgh.

Spa Well was well known for its ‘strengthening qualities’ and Ashton Spring for ‘medicinal virtues’. Avenham Well cured eye ailments; during the Victorian period its water poured from the ‘Dolphin Fountain’, which actually took the form of a sea serpent, perhaps representing a serpentine water spirit. Boilton Spa cured consumption and the water flowed through the mouth of a stone head which could again have been a representation of its deity.

Sea serpent, dolphin fountain, Avenham Park

V. Shattered

During the industrial period the tycoons who built the factories and transport systems took no account of the sanctity of Preston’s landscape. If they knew the Sherwood Sandstone was the source of the holy wells they paid no heed to its import. ‘Everything sacred was profaned’.

During ‘Canal Mania’ in 1794 the channel of the Lancaster Canal was dug past Ladywell in Preston to terminate in a basin behind the Corn Exchange. Due to changes in the water table and/or damage to the sandstone bedrock Ladywell dried up. It had disappeared by 1883.

Between 1884 and 1888 the Ribble was diverted south and Riversway Dockland was built. During this process Spa Well and Ashton Spring disappeared. St Mary’s Well ran dry. An engineering survey revealed that the removal of the sandstone from the river channel had breached the groundwater aquifer which fed St Mary’s and other wells.

Riversway Dockland

Ironically the canal near Ladywell fell out of use and was drained and filled in during the 1960s. Riversway Dockland closed in 1981 due to silting up of the Ribble. Engineering feats useful for less than two hundred years shattered the 250 million year old bedrock which had provided Preston and its surrounding area with physical and spiritual nourishment since the Ice Age.

VI. Fracking – Unholy Wells

Thankfully the Sherwood Sandstone aquifer outside the Preston area remains intact. Yet it is threatened in its entirety by the plans to drill a most unholy kind of well at Preston New Road.

The decision to frack nearby on the Fylde is also based on its geology. East of the Woodfold Fault the bedrock is Mercia Mudstone, Sherwood Sandstone lies beneath, then Manchester Marl, Collyhurst Sandstone, Millstone Grit, then Upper Bowland and Lower Bowland Shale.

The Bowland Shale was laid down in the Carboniferous period 300 million years ago and contains shale gas resulting from the decay of organic materials. Releasing this gas by hydraulic fracturing is a damaging process. A borehole 3 – 4 kilometres deep is drilled then water, chemicals, and sand are pumped in at high pressure. The rocks are cracked open and the gas flows back up the borehole with the contaminated water which is removed and treated.

VII. Contaminated

In 2014 Professor David Smythe argued against fracking on the Fylde due to the risk of contaminated fluids passing through the Woodfold Fault into the Sherwood Sandstone Group aquifer. His concerns were dismissed by the Environment Agency.

Anti-Fracking Protest, Preston New Road, 2016
In spite of Lancashire County Council’s refusal, the storm of protests, and ongoing resistance by activists walking the lorries and lock-ons, the UK government have forced fracking on Lancashire and the well at Preston New Road will be drilled by June 2018.

If Smythe’s arguments are correct the future looks bleak. Over the course of several years the fracking fluids will slowly contaminate our sandstone aquifer and the watercourses it feeds. Preston’s drinking water, which comes from upland and groundwater sources, will run brown with sand and lethal chemicals and ignite at the stroke of a match. Our once nurturing water deities will take new forms – toxic, dangerous. Our miraculous aquifer will be poisoned beyond repair. Such formations take millions of years to create and we won’t find another one.

This disaster could be avoided if the government paid attention to the lessons of the past and what is written in the bedrock rather than sacrificing the integrity of the landscape for profit.

SOURCES

British Geological Survey, ‘Geology of Britain Viewer’
British Geological Survey, ‘Groundwater Monitoring in Lancashire’
British Geological Survey, ‘Shale Gas, the Basics’
British Geological Survey, ‘The Permo-Triassic Sandstones of Manchester and East Cheshire’
British Geological Studies, ‘The properties of major aquifers in England and Wales’
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)
David Hunt, A History of Preston, (Carnegie, 2009)
David Smythe, ‘Risk of environmental contamination from proposed fracking on the Fylde’
Environment Agency, ‘Water Abstraction Map’
Lancashire County Council, ‘Preston New Road, Appendix 8: Hydrogeology and Ground Gas Proposal’
Norman Darwen, ‘Some Holy Wells in and Around Preston’
Peter Dillon, ‘The Story of St Mary’s Well’, Stories from the Land
Ruth Hayhurst, ‘Cuadrilla expects Lancs fracking to start within six months from “excellent quality” shale rocks’, Drill or Drop
The Lancashire Group of the Geologist’s Association, ‘Preston Geotrail’

In Van Gogh’s Starry Night

I can picture you
with many-headed horses
many-headed hounds

amongst stars unswung
swinging cypress

hear your laughter
in the Mistral ‘the idiot wind’.

But you are not in
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

You are here on Castle Hill
swaying beech trees
where St Walburge’s
cannot outspire the Pennines.

Why the stars so bright and loud?
The processions of mist walking on the summits?
The long lapping tongue of a death-hound?

You are silent
but from a small room
in a distant asylum Van Gogh speaks:

“we take death to reach a star”.

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Mist and Darkness and the Road to Joy – The Completion of Gatherer of Souls

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Over the past three years I have been working on a book for Gwyn ap Nudd, my patron god, to whom I devoted myself five years ago in January at the White Spring in Glastonbury.

At first I wasn’t sure what it was going to be about. It began simply as ‘Gwyn’s Book’. Because I am based in Lancashire and so many other writers have explored his connections with Glastonbury and Wales I decided to focus on his stories originating from the Old North, which are found in The Black Book of Carmarthen and Culhwch and Olwen.

After some time he made it clear that he did not want me to write an academic book (I therefore published my research on my website HERE) or  simply repeat the old tales penned by Christian scribes. Instead he wanted me to peel back the golden patina, expose the atrocities committed against him and the people of Annwn by Arthur, and journey back to the roots of his mythos in pre-Christian times when he was venerated as a god of the dead and gatherer of souls.

I met with other Inspired Ones who served him and whose souls he gathered such as the ancient ancestors of Orddu, ‘Very Black’, the Last Witch of Pennant Gofid; the northern British prophets Myrddin and his sister Gwenddydd; witches who flew with him between sky and air; wild women, madmen, poets, broken dreamers whose dreams have never been recorded.

I was prompted to explore how the closing of the doors of Annwn led to the sense of disconnection and soul loss that forms the void at the heart of the Anthropocene and to see the wonder in Gwyn’s reappearance on the brink of time as the Anglo-American Empire, which has its roots in Arthur uniting Britain under ‘One King, One God, One Law’, begins to fall.

My devotional journey has had its ups and downs. Sometimes it has felt like an endless ‘wow’ as I’ve discovered faces of Gwyn as yet unrecorded and hidden facets of his nature. At others, when I’ve been stuck in the Arthurian stories, unable to see beneath or get a break through, or I’ve written Gwyn’s voice wrong, I’ve felt frustrated, awkward, unworthy, and utterly inept. Yet I never once thought about giving up as I knew it was something I had to do.

Because there are no groups in the North West of England who venerate the Brythonic gods and goddesses or work experientially with our native myths my journey has been a lonely one. At low points I have contemplated joining the Anglesey Druid Order and even becoming a nun (when I hit thirty-five I realised it was my last chance!) although within I have known that my path in life is to walk with Gwyn even when all he can offer is “mist, darkness, and uncertainty”.

I’ve seen writing this book through to the end because serving him as an awenydd, although sometimes tough – Gwyn is the god who contains the fury of the spirits of Annwn and he is that fury just as he is the god who gathers the dead with love and compassion – is a source of deep and profound joy. Walking with him, whether through the starlit skies, or industrial smog, or blood-strewn battlefields, or the healing woodlands of Celyddon has always felt utterly right.

Gatherer of Souls is a book of new visions of the forgotten mythos of Gwyn ap Nudd  recorded in poems and stories to be published on Gwyn’s Feast, September the 29th, this year.

Over the past week I have read it out loud to Gwyn and it feels fitting that he has approved it as we approach the eclipse of the super blue wolf moon.

An Unfortunate Disclosure

My short story ‘An Unfortunate Disclosure’, which is based on Arthur’s digging up of the head of Brân the Blessed, has been published on Gods & Radicals.

GODS & RADICALS

A giant’s face, even when buried sixty feet down, has diplomacy and mastery of international relations.”

From Lorna Smithers

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‘Arthur disclosed the head ofBrân the Blessed from the White Hill, because it did not seem right to him that this Island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but his own.’
The Triads of the Island of Britain

‘The face is a living presence; it is expression… The face speaks.’
Emmanuel Levinas

A giant does not find it easy to die. We are too big for the cauldron. Our flesh does not boil. Our bones and gristle do not grind. Our faces remain; stark, expressive, chiselled, and insurmountable as cliffs.

I took control of my fate the day the cauldron shattered and the Gatherer of Souls, bent-backed, leaning against the winds of a broken universe, gathered the dead and the undead back to Annwn.

As I died…

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The One Who Didn’t Go To The Meadows of Defwy

In the fifth verse of ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ Taliesin berates ‘pathetic men’ (monks) who do not know ‘who made the one who didn’t go to the Meadows of Defwy’. I have been perplexed for several months by these lines, which pose the questions: Where and what are these mysterious meadows? Who didn’t go? What is the significance of not going? Who is his/her maker?

The Meadows of Defwy

Both my research and spirit-journeys suggest the Meadows of Defwy are in Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic Otherworld. ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ depicts Arthur’s raid on seven otherworldly fortresses and his plundering of its treasures. Arthur’s adversaries are Pen Annwn, ‘the Head of the Otherworld’, and his people.

In the fifth verse, the Meadows of Defwy are connected with the Brindled Ox and Caer Vandwy, ‘the Fortress of God’s Peak’. In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn (Pen Annwn) speaks of his ‘sorrow’ at witnessing ‘a battle at Caer Vandwy’ where ‘the honoured and fair’ fought Arthur’s raiding party and lost. This resulted in the theft of the Brindled Ox.

The first time I journeyed to the Meadows of Defwy I walked straight into the aftermath of the Arthur’s battle and recorded what I saw in the following verse:

A plain of blood where men once stood.
The lights have gone out in Caer Vandwy.
The clashing sea rolls over shield and spear.
The living dead. The dead dead again.

The Brindled Ox had been stolen, leaving only the deep trails of his struggling hooves as he was hauled aboard Prydwen, Arthur’s ship. His herd were frightened witnesses who had watched from a distance.

The association of the Brindled Ox with the Meadows of Defwy suggests it is a place where the animals of Annwn graze. This is backed up by the folktale Childe Roland, in which Roland found herds of horses, cows, sheep, goats, swine, and a flock of hens in Fairyland/Annwn. Roland beheaded each of their herders before assaulting the Fairy King’s castle.

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In more recent journeys I have found myself galloping through the Meadows of Defwy as a horse with the horse-herds. The meadows have appeared as a paradisal place of endless grassy plains alive with meadowflowers, bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, crickets.

It shares a kinship with ‘the Plains of Annwn’, which are written about by modern polytheist Nick Ford:

Broad and wide the plains of Annwn,
Sweet and thick, the grass thereon;
Fragrant with a million flowers,
Where graze the herds of Riganton.

Mild the breeze breathes on the pastures,
Blows the grasses that way, this;
As the horse-herds, like the wind, race
Further than the mind can guess.

The Meadows of Defwy are connected with the mare goddess Rigantona/Rhiannon and seem to bear some resemblance to the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology where the souls of the dead go to lead a blessed and happy afterlife.

Marged Haycock suggests Defwy is a river-name deriving from def-/dyf ‘black’ and may have been viewed as a river of the dead. A river Dyfwy is referred to in ‘The Spoils of Taliesin’: ‘Fine it is on the banks of Dyfwy / when the waters flow’. The Elysian Fields are located by the river of Oceanus, which separates this world from the underworld.

This ties together to suggest the Meadows of Defwy are a liminal place where the dead reside happily alongside the animals of Annwn (unless assaulted by thisworldly raiders!).

The One Who Didn’t Go

 It is my belief the phrase ‘the one who didn’t go the Meadows of Defwy’ does not literally mean someone who has not visited the meadows, but refers figuratively to someone who has escaped death.

Who could that be?

After pondering this question for a long while I received an answer from Greg Hill’s new translation of ‘The Conversation Between Taliesin and Ugnach’. When I first read this poem, which opens: ‘Horseman who rides to the fortress, / With white hounds and great horns’ I had a strong feeling the horseman was Gwyn, but was confused by his revelation of his name as Ugnach.

My confusion was laid to rest by Greg’s explanation that the suffix -ach signifies a supernatural character. It’s therefore likely to be another title of Gwyn/Pen Annwn. Greg added in a discussion that when Ugnach identifies himself he uses the word ‘heno’, a variant on ‘name’, but that ‘heno’ also means ‘tonight’. He might be saying ‘he is Ugnach just for tonight’.

The identification of Ugnach with Gwyn/Pen Annwn makes perfect sense in the context of the poem. Ugnach repeatedly extends his invitation to Taliesin to visit his fortress, promising ‘shining mead’, ‘wine flowing freely’, ‘fine gold for your spear-rest’ and a ‘bed’. Taliesin refuses to be lured by his ‘speech honeyed and fair’ and repeatedly states he does not know Ugnach. Whilst acknowledging Ugnach’s feast he insists he cannot stay.

Taliesin is refusing to stay with Ugnach in the lands of the dead; to accept death; to go to the Meadows of Defwy.

Taliesin is the One Who Didn’t Go To The Meadows of Defwy. Characteristically he is riddling about himself!

Who then is his maker?

Taliesin describes his making in ‘the Battle of the Trees’:

It was not from a mother and a father
that I was made,
and my creation was created for me
from nine forms of consistency:
from fruit, from fruits,
from God’s fruit in the beginning;
from primroses and flowers,
from the blossom of trees and shrubs,
from earth, from the sod
was I made,
from nettle blossom,
from the ninth wave’s water.
Math created me
before I was completed.
Gwydion fashioned me –
great enchantment wrought by a magic staff.

It seems this story refers to his making prior to his incarnation as Gwion Bach and rebirth from the womb of Ceridwen as Taliesin. He believes himself to have been created by the magician gods ‘before the world (was made)’ ‘when the extent of the world was (still) small’.

Thus he places himself above the processes of death and rebirth symbolised by the cauldron of Ceridwen which stands at the centre of the feast of Pen Annwn. Refusing to go to the fortress of Ugnach, Taliesin goes instead to ‘the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion’. Caer Gwydion is located in the Milky Way. There he hopes to reside in eternal life with his makers.

Taliesin escapes the fortress from which he helped steal the cauldron, the meadows where he fought ‘the honoured and fair’, the god of many names he refuses to know, but for how long?…

SOURCES

 Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, The Way of the Awenydd
Greg Hill, ‘The Conversation Between Taliesin and Ugnach’, The Way of the Awenydd
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Nick Ford, ‘The Plains of Annwn’, Association of Polytheist Traditions

Myrddin’s Museum

Afterthoughts on the Thirteen Treasures of the North

When I set out researching, meditating on, journeying to, and writing about the Thirteen Treasures of the North it was with the aim of assessing their value for the modern world. I aimed to answer the question of whether they are ‘hallows’: holy artefacts associated with the gods and the Otherworld or the rich boy’s toys of a forgotten age.

I certain felt a sense of the aura of the numinous about some of the treasures and, unsurprisingly, connected with some better than others. During the process I became aware my reactions to being in their presence were based on my values. I took an instant disliking to the Sword of Rhydderch and the Cloak of Padarn due to their associations with war and the Tyrian purple of the Roman Empire. Yet I was carried away by the Chariot of Morgan, struck by a premonitory shiver by the Chessboard of Gwenddolau, and could happily have joined Rhygenydd drinking from his Vat.

Whilst the only treasure that can authoritatively be connected with a deity is the Cauldron of Dyrnwch, through its parallels with the Cauldron of Pen Annwn, I received hints about the possibilities of their divine origin from my research and experiences and suggestions from readers in the comments. Most of the treasures can tentatively be associated with Brythonic deities:

1. The Sword of Rhydderch – Forged by Gofannon and symbolic of a bond between the kings of Strathclyde and a goddess of the land, most likely Clutha, goddess of the Clyde.
2. The Hamper of Gwyddno – Woven by a goddess-in-crane-form on the Island of the Dancing Cranes. I suspect this might be Ceridwen, who wove the wicker basket in which Taliesin was found in Gwyddno’s fish weir. The basket and hamper could be the same treasure.
3. The Horn of Brân – This may have been taken from an otherworldly bull or ox like the Brindled Ox and may be connected with the bull-god who is known in Gaul as Tarvus Trigaranus, ‘The Bull With Three Cranes’. His image also appears in Romano-British sculptures.
4. The Chariot of Morgan – Forged by Gofannon (Potia’s suggestion) possibly with Amaethon’s help.
5. The Halter of Clydno – My vision of the halter summoning horses from the Plains of Annwn suggests it might be connected with Rhiannon. Alternatively the appearance of halters in Kelpie legends might be suggestive of associations with water-horses such as Du Y Moroedd.
6. The Knife of Llawfrodedd – ???
7. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch – Pen Annwn (Gwyn/Arawn/Ogyrven). Brân the Blessed is another keeper and ultimately it is the womb of Ceridwen.
8. The Whetstone of Tudwal – This was possibly created at the same time as the Sword of Rhydderch (both belong together in Strathclyde) but I’m not sure who by.
9. The Cloak of Padarn – ???
10, 11. The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd – These may have belonged to Rosmerta who is depicted with a vat and straining spoon and holding a dish (suggested by Greg).
12. The Chessboard of Gwenddolau – A gift from Lugus.
13. The Mantle of Arthur – ???

Unfortunately we do not know how the Thirteen Treasures came to belong to the Men of the North. The development of the tradition, which might once have been fluid, with the stories changing as the treasures passed through the hands of various owners, ended in the seventh century with the fall of the North.

Thus it seems fitting that a story exists wherein Myrddin managed to procure the Thirteen Treasures and took them to a glass house on Bardsea Island which is often described as a museum. This shows they were removed from use in the post-Roman period when the North fell and became historical objects frozen in time. It also symbolises their removal from the living storytelling tradition to one that was repeated by rote then written down in the 15th century.

Will the Thirteen Treasures of the North remain behind the glass windows of Myrddin’s museum or can they be reclaimed as hallows with the stories of their divine origin shining with relevance for the 21st century? Only time will tell…

The Thirteen Treasures of the North