April Dogs

This is not an April Fool but an April Dog! As many people cannot visit local nature reserves due to the COVID-19 restrictions I am offering a free digital copy of my latest poetry pamphlet ‘April Dogs’. This collection honours the birds and other creatures of the wetlands and coasts of Lancashire and beyond and touches on the themes of the climate crisis, science, and war. Most of the poems were written in response to encounters with wetland birds on my stretch of the river Ribble and visiting reserves such as LWT’s Brockholes, WWT Martin Mere, and RSPB Leighton Moss.

You can download your PDF of April Dogs by clicking HERE.

The Calling of Creiddylad

Creiddylad,
strings of birdsong
pull your hair.

Creiddylad,
they turn your head
towards the sun.

Creiddylad,
your face is a gently
opening petal.

Creiddylad,
your footsteps call
the flowers from sleep
in hill and mound
and dun.

Creiddylad,
you are unstoppable
in your majesty

although a part of you is weeping inside
for the love of winter
who will soon
be gone.

Creiddylad,
do not turn back,
do not turn
back

to the darkness
of Annwn.

Creiddylad,
step into the light
of the spring sun.

Cwn Annwn and the Passage of Souls

Cwn Annwn Tattoo Design by Nixie

Gwyn ap Nudd… he went between sky and air.’
Peniarth MS. 132

Have you heard them howling through the skies?
Have you heard them howl of distant worlds?
Have you felt the howling fear you’ll die?
Have you feared they’re howling for your soul?
If you have, your soul is no longer yours, my friend,
It has never been and will never be until the end.
And never is never as the howling winds
That carry us between sky and air.

Dormach and Death’s Door

Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Crane-Legs’) stands in a misty hinterland before the divine warrior-huntsman and psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd (‘White son of Mist’) and his white stallion, Carngrwn.

Beside Gwyn is Dormach, his hunting dog, ‘fair and sleek’ and ruddy-nosed. Dormach’s gaze is commanding. His nose shines like a torch-fire; a beacon; a setting sun. Although he appears as a dog his shape somehow exceeds dog-like proportions. Gwyddno says:

‘Dormach red-nose – why stare you so?
Because I cannot comprehend
Your wanderings in the firmament.’

Gwyddno’s sensory perception is distorted. Dormach is close enough for his nose to be seen yet distantly wandering across the heavens.

This is due to the misty shape-shifting nature he shares with Gwyn. J. Gwengobryn Evans tells us Dormach ‘moved ar wybir, i.e. rode on the clouds which haunt the mountain-tops.’ ‘Wybir‘ is ‘condensed floating white cloud’ referred to as Nuden and ‘serves as a garment for Gwyn.’

In a remarkable image beside the poem, Dormach appears as a strangely grinning dog with forelegs but instead of back legs he possesses two long and tapering serpent’s tails! This illustrates Dormach’s capacity to be near and distant and shows he is clearly not of this world.

Dormach Sketch - Copy

From J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (1907)

Dormach is a member of the Cwn Annwn (‘Hounds of the Otherworld’) who are sometimes known as Cwn Wybyr (‘Hounds of the Sky’). They occupy a liminal position between the worlds and play an important role in the passage of souls.

This is represented beautifully by John Rhys’ translation of Dormach (re-construed as Dormarth) as ‘Death’s Door’. He links this to the Welsh paraphrase for death Bwlch Safan y Ci ‘the Gap or Pass of the Dog’s Mouth’, the English ‘the jaws of death’ and the German Rachen des Todes and suggests Dormach’s jaws are the Door of Annwn. Although this translation is disputed by scholars it possesses poetic truth. Death is not an end but a passage to the next life.

Gwyddno’s passing is not depicted in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’. I’ve been meditating on this poem for several years and had a break-through when I realised Gwyddno’s epithet, Garanhir, was an indicator of his inner crane-nature.

In a personal vision following from the poem Gwyddno donned his red crane’s mask, grew wings and followed the red sun of Dormach’s nose to be re-united with his kindred on an island of dancing cranes in Annwn.

Transformation

Physical death is not always a prerequisite of passage to Annwn. This is shown in the story of Pwyll and Arawn in the First Branch of The Mabinogion. Pwyll’s life-changing encounter with a King of Annwn called Arawn is heralded by the ‘cry of another pack’.

Although Pwyll notices Arawn’s hounds are ‘gleaming shining white’ and red-eared he fails to recognise their otherworld nature. He commands his pack to drive them off their kill: a grand stag, and feasts his own pack on it.

As recompense Arawn asks Pwyll to take his form and role in Annwn and fight his ritual battle against his eternal foe: Hafgan. By defeating Hafgan and resisting the temptation to sleep with Arawn’s wife, Pwyll wins the title of Pwyll Pen Annwn (‘Pwyll Head of Annwn’).

In the liminal space opened by the cries of Arawn’s hounds, Pwyll does not die but is transformed. Where passage to Annwn does not demand physical death it demands the death of one’s former identity and birth of a new one in service to the powers of Annwn.

Cwn Annwn

In later Welsh folklore Cwn Annwn are known by a number of names: Cwn Wybyr, Cwn Cyrff ‘Corpse Dogs’, Cwn Toili ‘Phantom Funeral Dogs’, Cwn Mamau ‘Mother’s Dogs’, ‘Hell-Hounds’ and ‘Infernal Dogs’. Here we find an admixture of pagan and Christian folk beliefs.

Annwn is identified with hell, its gods with demons, and its hounds with hell-hounds. Christianity’s dualistic logic limits the transformative potency of encounters with Annuvian deities by reducing them to objects of fear and superstition.

Yet the lore of Cwn Annwn endures with startling vivacity. They are famed for barking through the skies pursuing the souls of the dead. Therefore to hear them is a death-portent. They often fly the ways corpses will follow: hence their associations with teulu (‘phantom funerals’).

Their magical and disorientating qualities prevail. The 14th C poet Dafydd ap Gwilym speaks of encountering ‘the dogs of night’ whilst lost in ‘unsightly fog’ after hearing Gwyn’s ‘Crazy Owl’. In a report from Carmarthenshire the closer Cwn Annwn get the quieter their voices until they sound like small beagles. The further away the louder their call. In their midst the ‘deep hollow voice’ of a ‘monstrous blood hound’ is often heard.

Like Dormach they delight in a Cheshire-cat-like ability to shift their shape. Some appear as white dogs with red ears or noses. One is a ‘strong fighting mastiff’ with a ‘white tail’ and ‘white snip and ‘grinning teeth’ able to conjure a fire around it. Others are ‘the size of guinea pigs and covered with red and white spots’, ‘small’, ‘grey-red or speckled’. Some are ‘mice or pigs’.

At Cefn Creini in Merioneth they are accompanied by a ‘shepherd’ with a black face and ‘horns on his head’ who sounds remarkably like Gwyn: a horned hunter-god who blacks his face. He is supposedly fended off with a crucifix. In certain areas of Wales the ‘quarry’ of Gwyn and the Cwn Annwn is restricted to the souls of ‘sinners’ and ‘evil-livers’.

Gabriel Ratchets

In northern England we find the parallel of Gabriel Ratchets. Although they are nominally Germanic and rooted in the Wild Hunt there are striking resemblances with Cwn Annwn.

According to Edward A. Armstrong ‘Ratchet’ derives from the ‘Anglo-Saxon raecc and Middle English… rache, a dog which hunts by scent and gives tongue’. Rachen also means jaws: we recall ‘Rachen des Todes’ ‘Jaws of Death’.

In Yorkshire they are known as ‘gabble-ratchets’. Armstrong says ‘Gabble’ is a corruption of ‘Gabriel’ and ‘is connected with gabbara and gabares, meaning a corpse’. We find similarities with Cwn Cyrff ‘Corpse-Dogs’.

Gabriel Ratchets are also defined as packs of dogs barking through the skies portending death. Intriguingly they are identified with noisy flights of nocturnal birds who sound like beagles. In Lancashire James Bowker equates them with ‘whistling’ Bean Geese* flying over lonely moors.

In Burnley, Gabriel Ratchets are connected with the Spectre Huntsman of Cliviger Gorge. A maiden called Sibyl hears ‘wild swans winging their way above her’ before she is swept through the air by a ‘demon’. Poet Philip Hamerton shares the evocative lines ‘Wild huntsmen? Twas a flight of swans, / But so invisibly they flew.’

Thousands of Bewick’s swans and Pink-footed Geese arrive to over-winter on Martin Mere between September and November: the time ‘the Wild Hunt’ flies and may form the root of these Lancashire legends.

In Nidderdale the Gabble Ratchet is equated with the ‘night-jar, goat-sucker, screech-owl, churn-owl, puckbird, puckeridge, wheelbird, spinner, razor-grinder, scissor-grinder, night-hawk, night-crow, night-swallow, door-hawk, moth-hawk, goat-hawk, goat-chaffer… and lich-fowl’

We also find the ‘Ratchet Owl’: the ‘death-hound of the Danes’ and ‘night crow’: ‘This kind of owl is dog-footed and covered with hair; his eyes are like the glistering ice; against death he uses a strange whoop.’

Gabble Ratchets also take the form of birds with burning eyes and appear to warn of death. In some cases they are identified with the souls of un-baptised children.

Cwn Annwn and the Passage of Souls

In stories of Cwn Annwn and Gabriel Ratchets we find an astonishing menagerie of imaginal ‘hounds’. These rich folk beliefs, rooted in wild moorlands and piping wetlands, were not extinguished by Christianity.

Industrialisation forced country dwellers into towns to work in factories. 12 hour shifts in ‘dark Satanic mills’ crushed imagination. Wild places disappeared with the wild mind beneath red bricks of housing developments and asylum walls of schools and universities and secular careers.

Yet through the concrete of office-blocks and head-phones of call-centres over the white-noise of television we still hear the Cwn Annwn howling. The harder we try to shut them out the louder they howl.

The stoppers in Death’s Door tremble as they bark back the liminal spaces where the gods of Annwn are encountered and souls are transformed.

An increasing number of people are encountering hounds and gods of Annwn and having their lives turned around. I met Gwyn at a local phantom funeral site when I was lost. Passing through Death’s Door with him confirmed the reality of the afterlife and has given me a deeper appreciation of life in thisworld.

As I have striven to uncover Gwyn’s forgotten mythos from the British landscape I have been unfailingly drawn to flight paths of migratory birds and recovering wetlands. Locally, the Ribble Estuary and Martin Mere; further afield, Nith’s Estuary and Caerlaverock, Glastonbury Tor and the Somerset Levels, Cors Fochno (‘Borth Bog’) in Maes Wyddno (‘Gwyddno’s Land’).

This has led me to believe that as Brythonic King of Winter Gwyn presides over wintering birds and the passage of souls. This seems significant at a time migratory birds are threatened by melting glaciers and drained wetlands and floods have wrecked havoc across the UK. Our fates are intrinsically linked.

One of the most powerful lessons trusting my soul to Gwyn taught me was it has never been my own. I have always been one of his pack, one of his flock passing between worlds between sky and air.

Arfderydd, River Nith and Caerlaverock 220 - Copy

Swans over Nith Estuary

SOURCES

Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (Chiefly Lancashire and the North of England) (1872)
Dafydd ap Gwilym, Rachel Bromwich (ed.), A Selection of Poems, (1982)
Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds (1958)
Heron (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2015)
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, (2003)
James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire, (1878)
J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen (1907)
John Billingsley, West Yorkshire Folk Tales, (2010)
John Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (1841)
John Roby, Traditions of Lancashire: Volume 2 (1829)
John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, (1677)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (1998)
Philip Gilbert Hamerton, The Isles of Loch Awe and Other Poems of My Youth, (1855)
Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, (2007)
T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore and Folk-Custom, (1930)
Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (1880)
Nottingham Evening Post, Monday 23rd August, 1937

*This seems odd as Bean Geese over-winter in south-west Scotland and Norfolk.
**With thanks to John Billingsley and Brian Taylor for providing some helpful pointers on Gabriel Ratchets, particularly sections from Edward A. Armstrong’s The Folklore of Birds.

Hoddom and Brydekirk: The Fire of the Gods Endures

St Kentigern on Glasgow Coat of Arms, Wikipedia Commons

In Jocelyn’s The Life of St Kentigern there is a story about the saint’s recall from Wales to the Old North by Glasgow’s ruler, Rhydderch Hael. Following an angelic vision, Kentigern sets out with 665 disciples and arrives in Hoddom where he is greeted by a multitude of people.

Drawing a cross and invoking the Holy Trinity, Kentigern orders anyone against the word of God to depart. This results in ‘a vast multitude of skeleton-like creatures, horrible in form and aspect’ departing from the assemblage and fleeing from sight.

Reassuring the terrified crowd Kentigern ‘lays bare’ what they believe in. He condemns their idols to the fire and tells them their principal deity ‘Woden’ from whom they claim descent is nothing more than a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is ‘loose in the dust’ whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

As Kentigern preaches faith in Jesus Christ the flat plain of ‘Hodelm’ rises into a hill which remains to this day. The people ‘renounce Satan’ and are washed in the waters of baptism.

This foundation legend explains the association of the site of the church and the graveyard beside the river Annan across from Woodcock Air (the hill) at Hoddom with St Kentigern.

Woodcock Air Hill

The Life of St Kentigern was commissioned by Jocelyn, Bishop of Glasgow, and written by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness, in the 12th century. As a literary hagiography it was clearly designed to promote the life of Kentigern (who lived in the 6th century) and vilify paganism. As a historical document it should be approached with caution, particularly in light of the anachronism concerning Woden.

Whilst there is archaeological evidence of a Northumbrian monastery based around St Kentigern’s church at Hoddom it was not founded until the 8th century. (This is evidenced by an 8th century letter sent by Alcuin to Wolfhard, Abbott of Hodda Helm). The Anglo-Saxons did not arrive until long after Kentigern died. It seems Jocelyn wove later tales concerning the conversion of Woden’s worshippers into the text.

This leaves us with the question of who the people of Hoddom venerated prior to Kentigern’s arrival. The existence of a local cult is evidenced by a Roman altar stone found in the wall of the church at Hoddom Cross and built into the porch in 1817. Unfortunately when it was found the sides could not be seen and the ‘mouldings of the capital and base’ had been ‘dressed off’. There are no clues who it was dedicated to.

However the surrounding area echoes with pagan memories: the place-names Brydekirk and Lochmaben; an altar to Vitris and a ram’s head at Netherby; the story of Gwenddolau, the last pagan Brythonic king, whose soul was gathered by Gwyn ap Nudd after he was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd. Myrddin Wyllt’s flight from Arfderydd in battle-madness to Celyddon.

Intrigued and troubled by the story of Kentigern’s conversion of the people of Hoddom, wondering whether between the lines and beneath the Hollywood-style Biblical pyrotechnics any ‘truths’ (or at least personal gnoses) about their pagan religion may be intuited from the land, I returned to the area North of the Wall.

Walking from Ecclefechan to Hoddom, the first thing that struck me was the teeming of nature in the Scottish villages and fields. Flocks of spotted starlings on the roofs and telephone wires. Droves of sparrows flitting in and out of the hedgerows. The un-mowed roadsides were alive with flowers and every flower was covered with bees. Slick black slugs wandered through long grasses. I felt an unusual liberty in ‘the right to roam’.

Hoddom CrossMy first stop was at the church at Hoddom Cross. Roofless and derelict due to a fire, ivy climbed its walls and mausoleums. Ferns and wildflowers pushed through the railings to adorn older graves marked by sandstone gravestones. Newer graves with shiny porcelain headstones adorned with freshly wrapped bouquets glimmered in the background.

Something birch-white caught my eye. Going to investigate I found myself blinking in disbelief. In a Christian graveyard a couple of miles from any village I was staring at what to all appearances was a carving of a white dog with a purposively painted red nose. Dormach red-nose! I thought immediately of Gwyn ap Nudd’s famous hound who accompanies him as he guides the dead to the otherworld.

Admittedly it had antler-like twigs for ears and might have been a representation of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. But why carve it white from birch? It looked far more like a dog and a hound of Annwn at that. Too strange a find in a graveyard to be pure coincidence when I was tracing the deity(s) associated with the Roman altar (which I did not see).

River AnnanAfter visiting the ‘new’ church I walked to St Kentigern’s graveyard at Hoddom across the Annan from Woodcock Air. Watched over by a tall fir (or pine?) tree it was blissfully overgrown with ferns, yarrow, willowherb, bee-humming knapweed, decorated by harebells.

St Kentigern's Graveyard

Wandering amongst the gravestones I noticed carved images of skulls and crossbones and remarkable winged souls which a notice recorded as ’18th century folk art’. So here are Kentigern’s skeletons, I thought, unbanished. Symbols of death and our transition to the otherworld living on through years of Christian rule.

From the vantage point on Woodcock Air as I looked down on St Kentigern’s graveyard the sandstone gravestones shifted into brown-clad people. I gained a sense of the slowness of lives decanted by prayer, steady seasonal work in the fields, the slow turning of cart wheels, the satisfaction of self-subsistency and knowing you would die and be buried in your land close to your community.

St Kentigern's Graveyard from Woodcock AirAnd beneath the Northumbrian monastery did I gain a sense of St Kentigern’s church? The scene of conversion? The deity(s) to whom the ‘idols’ were dedicated? The ‘truth’ felt buried deep. Momentarily seeing the raised area where the church stood as a burial mound I thought back to Jocelyn’s words about ‘Woden’ being a mortal man of a pagan sect whose body is in the dust whilst his soul ‘endures the eternal fire’ in the underworld.

Could these words be read obliquitously to refer to a deified ancestor or ancestral deity believed to live on in the brightness of the world beyond this world? Perhaps even to Gwyn who as a psychopomp and leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’ is Woden’s closest Brythonic equivalent?

BrydekirkI also had the opportunity to visit Brydekirk. Intriguingly Ronald Cunliffe Shawe claims Gwenddolau worshipped ‘Woden’ and ‘a fire goddess’. His reference leads to the passage about Woden in The Life of St Kentigern. I can’t find anything mentioning a fire goddess. However Gwenddolau’s worship of such a deity would make perfect sense if Brydekirk is named after Bride or Brigid. Brigid was later venerated as St Brigid and her priestesses tended an eternal flame.

At the church I was told by one of the parishioners it was indeed named after St Brigid of Ireland. I also learnt St Bryde’s Well was a natural spring and was gifted with an indispensable description of its location.

My walk to the well down the Annan then alongside fields was accompanied by a curious herd of cows who followed peeping out through gaps in the hedge. Their strange behaviour led me to recall the story of how St Brigid was raised by a white cow with red ears: another otherworldly animal.

CowsThe area surrounding St Bryde’s Well was hopelessly overgrown with brambles, nettles and Himalayan Balsam. With the guidance of the parishioners I still couldn’t find it. Ready to give up I saw what looked like a pink veil. I first assumed it was a votive offering marking the spring. When I got closer I realised it was a balloon strung with pale gauze. Another extraordinary marker that proved to be no mere coincidence.

Turning round, I noticed a water dispenser and beyond heard running water. Seeing a rivulet at the bottom of a steep bank running into the Annan, I followed its course to find a small stream leading to the natural spring pouring from amongst mosses and ferns into an orangey circular basin: St Bryde’s Well.

Across the river I also visited the remains of St Bryde’s tower. All I found was a single flight of steps climbing upward into the fire of the sun. Could this has have been a stairway walked by Brigid’s priestesses who maintained her eternal flame?

St Bryde's TowerI returned to Penwortham with no clear answers about how or whether St Kentigern converted the people of Hoddom or what they experienced and believed. Such ‘truths’ can only be conjectural and are always determined by our questions, assumptions and  beliefs.

What I gained was a deeper understanding of how our physical and literary landscapes interweave. How sign and signified lead the dance of a journey which is led by the gods who lead us to places where all distinctions break down in the numinosity of their presence.

At Hoddom and Brydekirk I met a myriad inhabitants of a northern land and I met Gwyn and Bride (who I know here in Lancashire as Brigantia) in new ways. I learnt that within the land and its stories and even in the most depredatory of Christian texts the fire of the gods endures.

Invernith

My arrival is slow to wonder
initial disbelief
fading into silver-lined water
the mirror imprint
of Nith’s name a god in glass
becoming grey cloud
in the ether says
BELIEVE BELIEVE.

In the netherworld gloaming birds
shriek BELIEVE BELIEVE:
barnacle geese beat
black and white hearts against Crifell.
As the dark moon starts her slow pull
downward to Invernith
my fingers brush water
and touch a silver hand.

Invernith with Crifell

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.

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)

The Brightness beyond Endurance: Gwyn ap Nudd and the Battle of Arfderydd

In my waking dream spears pierce the night sky opening onto another night filled with rainbows and blinding stars. Battle cries ascend from black fog. In a stained glass window I glimpse a man with a hunched back in a green and mossy gown departing from a picture into darkness. From these images I derive my research on Gwyn ap Nudd and the Old North should begin with the Battle of Arfderydd. This is an account of my initial findings and thoughts to date.

The Battle of Arfderydd haunts Britain’s consciousness as one of three of the most futile Dark Age battles. It took place in 573 and was fought between Brythonic rulers of the Old North; Gwenddolau ap Ceidio and his cousins Gwrgi and Peredur ap Eliffer. All were descendants of Coel Hen. Thus it epitomises the internecine strife that prevented northern rulers from putting up a successful resistance to the Angles of Northumbria.

The Triads of Ancient Britain tell us it was fought over a lark’s nest. This probably refers to Caerlaverock (‘Lark’s Fort’) on the site of which still stands a stunning medieval castle. It is generally believed the Battle of Arfderydd took place on the plain between Liddel Water and Carwinley Burn. It is possible the motte and bailey named Liddel Strength was the location of Gwenddolau’s fort. After Gwenddolau was killed, his war-band retreated to the fort and held out for ‘a fortnight and a month’ before their defences fell and they too were slain and (according to a local tradition) buried near Upper Moat.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn states his presence at Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’

That Gwenddolau adhered to a pre-Christian mythos featuring Gwyn as a god who gathered the souls of the dead to Annwn is hinted at by certain lines in the Triads. Gwenddolau is referred to as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of Britain. Gwyn himself is referred to as a ‘Bull of battle’. Contrary to popular belief, Celts and not Vikings wore helmets affixed with bull horns. The bull was viewed as a sacred animal and its qualities were attributed to war leaders and psychopomps. It is also of interest ‘Gwyn’ and ‘Gwen’ both mean ‘white’ or ‘blessed’.

Gwenddolau is also said to own a pair of birds who wear a ‘yoke of gold’ and devour two corpses of the Britons for dinner and two for supper. If the latter is an oblique reference to funerary practices whereby bodies are left on stone slabs for their flesh to be consumed by carrion birds this shows Gwenddolau and his people were not performing Christian burials. The northern Britons may have believed Gwyn’s presence as a gatherer of souls was signalled by the approach of corpse-eating birds (or dogs or wolves). Gwenddolau’s birds may have had a permanent position in this role.

Another striking passage which may read as a portrayal of Gwyn’s presence at the Battle of Arfderydd with the spirits of Annwn can be found in The Life of St Kentigern. Here, Lailoken (Myrddin Wyllt) tells the saint of a vision which drove him to madness in Coed Celyddon (the Caledonian Forest):

‘In that fight the sky began to split above me and I heard a tremendous din, a voice from the sky saying to me ‘Lailocen, Lailocen, because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan, and until the day of your death you will have communion with the creatures of the wood. But when I directed my gaze towards the voice I heard, I saw a brightness too great for human senses to endure (my italics).

The Brightness beyond EnduranceI saw, too, numberless martial battalions in the heaven, like flashing lightning, holding in their hands fiery lances and glittering spears which they shook most fiercely at me. So I was torn out of myself and an evil spirit seized me and assigned me to the wild things of the woods, as you see.’

It seems possible the introduction of the voice of God and angels of Satan are a Christian cover for the appearance of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn. Gwyn’s earlier name Vindonnus ‘clear light, white’ links him to the unendurable brightness. As a god of thresholds; between the worlds and life and death, experiences of his presence take place on the edge of human sense. Hence Lailoken / Myrddin’s transition from ‘sanity’ to ‘madness.’

The battalions in the sky look more like warriors than angels. The notion that the spirits of Annwn include deified ancestors arriving to take their fallen kindred fits with their numinous apparel. These spirits are frequently demonised by Christian writers. That an ‘evil spirit’ (ie. a spirit of Annwn) tears Lailoken / Myrddin ‘out of himself’ and assigns him to the wildwood is a significant factor in his flight and later recovery.

In the saga poetry of The Black Book of Carmarthen and The Red Book of Hergest we witness Myrddin’s transformation from a golden-torqued warrior of Gwenddolau’s court into a poet who prophecies against war. Myrddin shares harrowing depictions of ‘the blood-shed of battle’ and his guilt about the deaths of Gwendydd’s children. Whether he is literally responsible for killing them or feels responsible is uncertain.

‘Now Gwendydd loves me not and does not greet me…
I have killed her son and daughter.
Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?
For after Gwenddolau no lord honours me.’

He mourns Gwenddolau’s death:

‘I have seen Gwenddolau, a glorious prince,
Gathering booty from every border;
Beneath the brown earth now he is still,
Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’

Myrddin also speaks of his flight from ‘Rhydderch Hael, defender of the Faith’. Rhydderch was ruler of Alt Clut and renowned for championing Christianity and his patronage of St Kentigern. Myrddin’s words have led some scholars to believe Arfderydd was fought between Pagan (Gwenddolau) and Christian (Rhydderch) forces. After Gwenddolau’s death Rhydderch rises to greater power, forming an alliance with Urien Rheged, Gwallog ap Llenog and Mercant Bwlc against the Angles at Lindisfarne.

During this period Myrddin retreats to Celyddon, keeping the company of wild creatures such as wolves, a piglet and a favoured apple tree. He states he has wandered ‘ten and twenty years’ with ‘madness and madmen’ ‘gan willeith a gwyllon.’ Myrddin’s epithet ‘gwyllt’ means ‘mad’ or ‘wild.’ ‘Gwyllon’ can refer to ‘madmen’, ‘wildmen’ or to ‘spirits’ or ‘shades.’ They may be equated with the ‘seven score men’ who fought at Arfderydd then lapsed into madness in Celyddon and perished. These gwyllon are ancestral presences; spirits of Annwn.

Myrddin’s capacity to see the spirits of Annwn may result from his vision of the brightness beyond endurance. Whilst initially it tips him over the edge, it confirms the existence of Gwyn and his spirits and an afterlife. This provides him with the strength to live through suffering; ‘Snow up to my hips among the wolves of the forest, / Icicles in my hair’ until his ‘threefold’ death. Myrddin says ‘After enduring sickness and grief in the Forest of Celyddon / May I be a blissful man with the Lord of Hosts.’ (In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn is referred to as ‘Lord of Hosts’.)

Associations between Gwyn and healing processes that take place in the wild also appear in a fourteenth century Latin manuscript called Speculum Christiani: ‘Some stupid people also stupidly go to the door holding fire and iron in the hands when someone has inflicted illness, and call to the king of the Benevolent Ones and his queen, who are evil spirits, saying ‘Gwyn ap Nudd who are far in the forests for the love of your mate allow us to come home.’

Myrddin’s vision also grants him the power of prophetic poetry. It is noteworthy that this former warrior uses poetry to give voice to the horror of warfare and to warn against future bloodshed. A critical attitude toward war differentiates the saga poems from earlier heroic poetry. We might recall similarities between Myrddin’s ‘Death has taken everyone, why does it not call me?’ and Gwyn’s ‘I have been where the warriors of Britain were slain / I live on; they are dead’. Both are laments.

Unfortunately, the northern British stories of Gwyn ap Nudd and Myrddin Wyllt and the deep, wild wisdom they contain are little known in contrast to the courtly Christian tales of King Arthur, Merlin and his knights. For a medieval aristocracy later bent on Crusades; ‘One King, One God, One Law’ there was no room for a northern wild man and his words against war or the ruler of an otherworld and ancestral presences immanent in the wild places of this-world. Perhaps this can be changed…

***

SOURCES

Blake, William The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Anchor Books, 1988)
Breeze, Andrew “The Name and Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle,” Journal of Literary Onomastics: Volume 2: Issue 1, Article 1. (2012)
Evans, J. Gwengobryn The Black Book of Carmarthen (Lightning Source UK Lmtd, 1907)
Heron (transl.) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Hunt, August The Arthur of History: A Reinterpretation of the Evidence (August Hunt, 2012)
Pennar, Meirion (transl.) The Black Book of Carmarthen (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Rudiger, Angelika H. ‘Gwyn ap Nudd: Transfigurations of a character on the way from medieval literature to neo-pagan beliefs’ in Gramarye, Issue 2 (University of Chichester, Winter 2012)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Thomas, Neil ‘The Celtic Wild Man Tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini: Madness or Contemptus Mundi?’ in Arthuriana Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
Tolstoy, Nikolai The Quest for Merlin (Sceptre, 1985)

The Old North from Peneverdant

SnowdropsIn the land where I live, spring awakes. Snowdrops in their prime unfold the voluminous skirts of their lanterns. Lords and ladies push their courtship through the soil alongside first signs and scents of ransoms. Swollen mosses take on a bright green living vibrancy.

As I walk the path centuries of ancestors walked to St Mary’s Well, I hear the loudness of a thrush. Could it be the one who calls me from sleep each morning, speckled chest blanched and white as birch amongst ash and sycamore? The trees hold back for now, but I know the sap will start rising soon.

I pass the site of the healing well and cross the road to the War Memorial. Splashes of pink, purple and yellow primroses are planted in beds before the Celtic cross. Etched on blue-grey slabs are the names of seventy-three men who lost their lives in the First World War and forty-six who died in the second. They are honoured and remembered here. I also think of the dead who have no memorial or whose memories have been erased or forgotten.

I follow the footpath uphill onto Church Avenue. Leading to St Mary’s Church, it once went to a Benedictine Priory, dissolved and more recently demolished. A strange road this; trodden by pilgrims in search of miraculous cures and by funeral processions. By soldiers too, maybe armies, defending this crucial position from what we now see as the castle motte.

Passing the church on the hill’s summit I stand in the graveyard amongst tilted and fallen headstones, beneath sentinel beech trees whose shells and bronzed and curling leaves still litter the greening earth.

There’s no access to the motte’s vantage point, but through leafless trees I can make out the city of Preston with its clock tower, steeples, tower blocks and huge manufacturies along Strand Road. I recall images of its panoply of smoking chimneys, flaming windows, imagine the pounding Dickensian melancholy-mad elephants.

Preston’s sleeker now. Cleaner. Less red and black. Concrete grey. Not so smoky. But sometimes the industrial pall still holds. Somewhere behind its walls lies a medieval town and behind that…

The Pennines form a sweeping backdrop, rising higher than Priest Town’s spires ever could; Parlick, Wolf Fell, Longridge Fell, Billinge Hill, Great Hill, Winter Hill. An easterly green and purple barricade. To the west, the river Ribble, Belisama, strapped into her new course, stretches long arms to her shining estuary. A sea gull cries over the horizon and disappears.

I’ve spent several years researching the history of Penwortham. The Riversway Dockfinds mark the existence of a Bronze Age Lake Village. Ballista balls on Castle Hill and a huge industrial site at Walton-le-dale ascertain a Roman presence. Following the breakdown of Roman rule, history grinds to a halt.

There is a black hole in Penwortham’s past the size of the Dark Ages; during the time of the Old North.

Historians have conjectured about this. David Hunt and Alan Crosby agree that place names (where we find a mixture of Brythonic and Old English, like Penwortham* often conjoined) suggest a gradual settlement of the local area by Anglo-Saxons during the seventh century. They say Penwortham’s remoteness on the edges of Northumbria and Mercia meant it was not a major concern. However, this conflicts with the significance of its location as a defensive position for the early Britons and Romans and later probably for the Saxons of Mercia and the key role it played for the Normans during the harrying of the North.

History starts up again with the Saxon hundreds, invasions from Scandinavia and the Norman Conquest. But what happened in between?

Unfortunately, likewise, there is a black hole in the history of the Old North the size of Penwortham. And it isn’t the only one.

The very concept of ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘the Old North’ is problematic. It is a term used post datum by scholars to identify an area of land covering the majority of northern England and southern Scotland from the time of the breakdown of Roman rule in the fifth century until the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria came to dominate in the eighth century.

During this period, it was simply known as ‘Y Gogledd’ ‘the North’. Its people spoke a Brythonic language known as Cumbric, which was similar to the Cymric language of the Welsh. Its rulers ‘Gwŷr y Gogledd’ ‘the Men of the North’ claimed common descent from either Coel Hen (Old King Coel) or Dyfnawl Hen. Again, the genealogies are problematic because they were created by kings to certify their reign by tracing their lineage back to legendary ancestral figures.

The main kingdoms of the Old North are usually identified as Alt Clud, in the south-west of Scotland, which centred on Dumbarton and later became Strathclyde; Gododdin, in the south-east of Scotland, which had a base at Edinburgh; Elmet, in western Yorkshire and Rheged in north-west England.

The location of Rheged is a matter of ongoing debate. For Ifor Williams it centres on Carlisle and the Eden Valley and covers Cumbria, the Solway Firth and Dumfries and Galloway. John Morris posits the existence of a northern Rheged in Cumbria and a southern Rheged that extended into Lancashire and Cheshire. On the basis of landscape and resources, Mike McCarthy suggests a smaller kingdom or set of sub-kingdoms existed either north or south of the Solway. If McCarthy is correct, we do not have a name for present day Lancashire at all but a black hole the size of a county or larger!

Another problem is that textual sources about the Old North are extremely limited. We have some historical records such as the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum and Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Much of the history of this period is derived from the heroic poetry of the Dark Age bards Taliesin and Aneirin. Later saga poetry construes dramatic dialogues between characters associated with earlier events.

Research leads to where history and myth converge but can take us no further. It becomes necessary to step beyond study across the threshold to otherworlds where the past, our ancestors and deities still live.

So I speak my intentions to the spirits of place; the Lady in the Ivy with her glance of green, wood pigeons gathered in the trees, the people buried here in marked and unmarked graves.

I speak with my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, who abides beyond this land but sometimes seems closer than the land itself. The god who initiated and guides this quest.

His suggestion: what is a black hole but a portal?

Our agreement stirs a ghost wind from behind the graves, rustling bronze beech leaves and tree whispers from above.

The hill seems greener. A single white sea gull barks. Then long-tailed tits come chittering and twirling to the brambles.

Beech trees and castle motte*Penwortham first appears in the Domesday Book in 1086 as ‘Peneverdant.’ Writing in 1857 Rev. W. Thornber claims this name is of British origin and ‘formed of three words- pen, werd or werid and want, as Caer werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water, that is the green hill on the water’. This describes exactly how I imagine Castle Hill would have looked during the eleventh century near the Ribble on the marsh. However, ‘verdant’ has always sounded more like French for ‘green’ to me.

Alan Crosby says ‘Peneverdant’ results from a Norman scribe trying to write an unfamiliar word (which was likely to have been in use for up to 500 years) phonetically. He tells us the ‘Pen’ element in Penwortham is British and means ‘prominent headland’ whilst ‘wortham’ is Old English and means ‘settlement on the bend in the river’.

If Penwortham had an older British name prior to Saxon settlement, it is unknown. I can’t help wondering if it would have been something like ‘y pen gwyrdd ar y dŵr,’ which is modern Welsh for ‘the green hill on the water’. It’s not that far from Peneverdant.

Imagine the Old North

Imagine the Old North. What can it be? Can you see it in this land, from your green hill across the marsh how the ordinary people saw it?

Can you see ravens in trees amongst the crows? Was it common enough for magpies?

Can you imagine the rumours of embittered warlords and honey-tongued bards who sung their praises? Can you taste weak beer or braggot? Do you feast on dog or wild boar?

Can you imagine living in a world where the animals speak? How will you learn their tongues? Will they lead you into their expanses?

Your books are filled with stories. Can you imagine the ones who got away? How their hearts beat on river-banks and they were pierced by spears as carrion birds circled? How the sleek otter swept into the depths and carried their death-cries to his young? Can you imagine what the ravens whispered in their thatched nest?

Can you imagine the task of bringing peace to the battle-dead?

Where all the darkness of history wanders and I hold the spirits of Annwn back… can you imagine?

What can our poetry be? A sound, a scream, a panorama of the Old North in a beam of light?

River Ribble from the Ribble Way, east of Ribchester Bridge
*Questions posed by Gwyn ap Nudd.
**Photograph of the river Ribble from the Ribble Way east of Ribchester Bridge.