The Riddles of Manawydan

What is the water you cannot drink?
What is the mineral that kills and cures?
What is the ship you cannot sink?
What is the light that warns and lures?
Who sings the song that robs and feeds?
Who are the horses that run without feet?
Where is the cloak that was shaken between?
Why does the sea yearn for the land?
Why is this seafarer land bound?

Sea at Blackpool

The Wizard of the Waves

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I.
Several years ago, I made the mistake of offending Manawydan. I was new to journeying. My guide took me to the otherside of Blackpool and we alighted outside a swimming pool. On the wall was a stereotypical plasticy image of a wizard in starry indigo-blue robes with a wand and bent wizard’s hat. Cartoon letters beside him read: ‘THE WIZARD OF THE WAVES’.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was incredulous. This wasn’t how the otherside appeared in books about shamanism. Turning to my guide I asked affrontedly “why have you brought me to see this tacky wizard?”

The wizard stepped from the wall and raised his wand. The scene dissipated with the dismal crashing of all the waves of the sea. I found myself back in my room immensely disorientated. Later it dawned on me that I’d offended Manawydan. I felt like kicking myself.

II.
Manawydan’s stories contain deep magic. However I struggle to connect with him because he’s humble, practical, wise: all the things I’m not.

After the catastrophic battle against Matholwch, King of Ireland, where Brân was slain, Manawydan and seven survivors returned with his head. They feasted with it for seven years at Harlech then for a potentially interminable period on the island of Gwales.

In the feasting hall in Gwales there were three doors: two open, one closed. Previously Brân told them “so long as you do not open the door… you can remain there and the head will not decay. But as soon as you open that door you can stay no longer.”

Manawydan echoed his brother’s wisdom. ‘”See over there… the door we must not open.”‘

Darned doors. Particularly the closed ones. They’re such a temptation. As soon as someone says “don’t open that door”…

This time the culprit was Heilyn. When he opened the door and looked out all their past sufferings and losses returned. Brân’s head began to decay.

III.
Manawydan should have inherited Brân’s Kingdom but it was usurped during their sojourn in Ireland by Caswallon. To make up for his loss, Pryderi offered him Dyfed and marriage to Rhiannon.

Manawydan and Rhiannon were happily married and became firm friends with Pryderi and his wife, Cigfa. Their life of hunting, feasting and enjoyment was brought to an end when a blanket of mist descended leaving Dyfed devoid of men, domestic beasts and dwellings.

They survived in the wilderness for a year by hunting and fishing and eating honey from wild bees. Tiring of their frugal lifestyle, Manawydan suggested leaving for England to earn a living through craftsmanship.

In Hereford Manawydan took up saddlemaking. There were was more than a hint of magic about his work: he enamelled the pommels with the skill of Llasar Llaesgyngwyd; the gigantic blue smith who forged the Cauldron of Rebirth and delivered it to Brân.

Manawydan was a victim of his own success. The jealous townspeople decided to kill him and his company. Pryderi’s response was to “kill these churls.”

More sensibly Manawydan said “if we were to fight them, we would get a bad reputation and would be imprisoned. It would be better for us to go on to another town and earn our living there.”

Pryderi listened and they moved on. However when Manawydan took up shieldmaking he coloured the shields the same way they coloured the saddles. Again the townspeople were jealous and they were forced to move on.

In the next town Manawydan took up shoemaking. Instead of using enamel he made friends with the goldsmiths who taught him to make golden buckles. He became known as one of Three Golden Shoemakers and again was far too successful for his own good.

IV.
Manawydan and his company decided to return to Dyfed. Out hunting they were led by a white boar to a fortress. Manawydan recognised the work of whoever put the spell on the land and advised them not to enter.

“Don’t enter that enchanted fortress!” A bit like “don’t open that door…”

Pryderi rushed straight in. Enraptured by a golden bowl, upon touching it, he became speechless and well and truly stuck. Rhiannon followed and suffered the same fate. The blanket of mist descended and in a blink of an eye the fortress was gone.

Manawydan saved the day by capturing the pregnant wife of Llywd Cil Coed, the enchanter, in the form of a mouse. Ransoming her at a miniature gallows he persuaded Llywd to remove the magic from Dyfed and release Pryderi and Rhiannon.

V.
Manawydan’s stories are filled with magic. He’s got deep knowledge of the magical arts, those who wield magic, the unfathomable nature of magic itself. He’s a true wizard.

However if I was in his stories I’d indubitably be the one who failed to listen to his advice. Who could not resist the temptation to open the door or storm the fortress. Who’d still be wandering through mist subsisting on wild fruits and honey or staring entranced into a golden bowl.

But I’m not in his stories. He’s started coming into mine. In a memory that’s not my own in which I’m drunk aboard The Manxman: a boat moored at Preston Dock and used as a floating nightclub pulled away in 1991 long before I was old enough to drink.

In dreams of tides and shoes and rollercoasters dropping into the sea. In the call of gulls. In the tidal pull of the sea drawing me further and further up the Ribble estuary to the coast.

VI.
The medieval stories of the Brythonic deities are immensely valuable. However because they were penned by Christian monks nearly a thousand years ago they can impose a filter on direct experience of ‘pagan’ deities in the twenty-first century.

I’ve learnt a lot from Manawydan’s devotee, Angharad Lois, who keeps a blog called From the Edges which features stories from the shorelines and also Muddy Boots and Mistletoe where she’s part way through the Thirty Days of Devotion project for Manawydan. Angharad carefully weaves Manawydan’s lore together with her own experiences and contemporary art and literature presenting a fuller picture of who he is in the modern world.

I found a quotation Angharad picked out by Alison Leigh Lilly, about Manawydan’s Irish cognate, Manannan Mac Lir, resonated with me ”One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,’ says the Irish trickster god Manannan mac Lir in his guise as the traveling buffoon whose hat is full of holes and whose shoes squish with puddle water when he walks.’

I recognised this deity in The Wizard of the Waves and this wooden carving of a wizard at Martin Mere titled ‘The Great Mere Vanishing Act’ where he says ‘Can you find the missing mere?’

Quiz on walkway, Martin Mere

Well I worked out what happened to Martin Mere: fifteen miles of lake drawn out to sea by the pumps at Banks. But I still haven’t fathomed Manawydan. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the Wizard of the Waves is unfathomable as magic and his deep blue starry robes of the sea.

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Anti-Fracking Protests in Blackpool and the Awe of the Sea

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The twenty day public inquiry into whether fracking will take place at Roseacre and Little Plumpton opened on Tuesday the 8th of February at Blackpool Football Stadium. I travelled from Preston to join local people and protestors from anti-fracking groups to stand against Cuadrilla’s appeal and for democracy.

I don’t feel massively comfortable at protests. I’m not naturally smiley or sociable and am not good in crowds or with loud noise. However I went and literally stood for what I believe in and heard some good speeches from campaigners, students, faith groups, trade unions and a representative from a Lancashire based renewable energy company presenting viable alternatives to fracking.

Surprisingly for the first time I saw a small group of pro-fracking campaigners with signs saying ‘WE’RE BACKING FRACKING’ ‘JOBS JOBS JOBS.’ Following questions about how much they’d been paid they left. Hmm…

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Feelings about how the hearing will go are mixed. Speakers shared doubts about whether Greg Clark will listen to the views of Lancashire’s people and councillors after his proposal to classify fracking sites as ‘nationally significant infrastructure.’ Yet campaigners are taking heart in their success in preventing fracking over the last four years.

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Once the demonstration was over I walked from South Pier to North Pier. Nearly everywhere was closed and shuttered down. Instead of walking by forlorn skeletons hanging over abandoned horror houses, occasional shops selling sticks of rock and walking sticks with flashing lights, announcements ghosting from hidden speakers, I chose to walk by the sea.

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The huge fierce insurmountable sea crashing and crashing against the promenade with the tireless energy of its tidal pull: grey waves riding in and with a smash banking at head height in cascades of foam. After the tension of the protest it was invigorating to stand before the sea, let its saltwater splash over me, safe yet aware of its immense power.

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Wave by wave to allow the frustrations of politics to be washed away; outrage at Westminster forcing fracking on Lancashire, the futility of the political system, the lies and double-dealing of politicians, the constant need to fight against a world of men in suits, corrupt corporations and political-speak of which I have no comprehension.

To stand before the awe of the sea beneath a silver cloud-lit sky pierced by winter sunshine making rainbows in the spray. To stand before a quicksilver panorama of sky and sea.

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To see the Big Wheel stopped. The Big Wheel stopped. The Big Wheel stopped on Central Pier. And pray likewise fracking can be stopped, the wheel of industry and the political machine.

The Dragon of Marton Mere

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Two miles east of Blackpool lies a lake called Marton Mere which was born when the Ice Age reshaped the land leaving a glacial boulder, a huge ball of ice thousands of years old. This melted a kettle hole and in the melt water a dragon formed serpentine, curious, luxuriating in her freedom to swim and lap at the thawing earth after enduring her icy bonds.

When the first people came and paddled out on animal skin coracles they were aware of the stillness of that depth. As they fished with bone hooks within a panorama of reeds and bulrushes amidst piping calls of wetland birds they often thought they glimpsed an eye beneath, a flash of shimmery skin, wondered if it was a giant pike, something more reptilian.

The dragon knew if she appeared in their reality she’d undo their minds and landscape. So she entered the dreams of one of the young fishermen as a beautiful woman, taught him how to charm the fish and gift back to their spirits who swam thick where the real ones roved.

In turn he taught his people what she taught him and he became well-respected within his tribe. She often asked for personal gifts: shells, bone ornaments, joints of meat, to maintain that he acknowledged the source of his wisdom. Before he died he told his people about the lady of the mere and asked for his body to be deposited in its midst.

A tradition arose that when the person who served the lady died she entered the dreams of the next. So she did until a time of change. Her current fisherwoman was awkward and unpopular and had a tough message to deliver. An era of heavy rain approached when the lady would take her true form and devour their village.

The fisherwoman stammered but spoke the truth bravely. Her people did not believe her. It was their village, their mere, they’d lived beside it for generations. A group who secretly wanted rid of the lady’s influence so they could take control knocked the fisherwoman out in her sleep, took her out on a coracle to the middle of the mere, slit her throat and threw her into the dark water. An angry wind of dragon’s breath blew them back across the mere. A tidal wave overturned their coracle. Beneath it they drowned. Rain poured from dark clouds.

The next morning a young man leapt from his sleeping pallet, half-naked, clutching his dishevelled hair “they killed her! I saw them kill her! Behind them a dragon rose up. A dragon. A huge beautiful monstrous dragon with caves for eyes and the skin of a pike and a parade of winds leaping from her nostrils. She’s going to kill us.”

He ran from his dwelling and threw himself to his knees at the end of the jetty uttering a stream of incoherent words. Following through torrential rain his tribe saw the coracle floating in the distance like an empty tortoiseshell. Floodwaters rushed toward their village.

They could get no more sense from the young man. Recalling the tradition of retaining the lady’s favour with gifts, they collected together their finest bronze spears and axes, took them to the end of the jetty and cast them into the mere with prayers of placation.

Still the waters rose. As waves washed over the young man’s knees he suddenly shouted “leave! Go to the ridge: one day it will be Marton. Your offerings have saved everyone but he who saw the dragon.”

All the warriors could not drag him from where he stuck to the platform. With deep regret they left him and departed to the ridge where Great Marton now stands, stood arm in arm, hand in hand, and watched the mere devour their village.

Afterward it became an ill omen to dream of the lady or worse the dragon. Those who saw her, daring not to admit it to their people, either served her privately, left, or lost their minds.

When the Romans arrived they left the inhabitants of Marton and the mere well alone. Contrastingly the Culdee monks (who settled at the site later known as Kilgrimol) were astonished by the stupidity of their refusal to fish in the abundant mere, farm the surrounding landscape or allow anyone else to. So they decided to create a story stupid enough to fool them.

Drawing on the rumours of people making offerings of meat to the dragon they came up with the idea a monk hid a spring in a side of bacon disguised as a gift and threw it into her maw. Its rushing waters forced her jaws open and drowned her. She sunk to the bottom of the mere and was never seen again.

In spite of the logical inconsistency of the drowning of a water dragon some of Marton’s people were fooled. They wanted desperately to live in a world that was safe and governed by one God who gifted his monks with power over dragons.

Fishing on the mere gained in popularity and rights were highly contested. Farmers began to work the land but, in spite of God’s omnipotence, it was frequently inundated by flood water and plagued by disappearances of cows, sheep and pigs. Whispers of a dragon continued.

In the 18th century a decision was made by the majority of Marton’s people to drain the mere. Main Dyke was deepened and widened sluicing all but a fragment of those ominous waters which gave birth to the dragon away into the river Wyre.

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During the digging two coracles and bronze axes and spearheads were unearthed: an uneasy reminder of the legend. The people consoled themselves that with the dyke draining the mere like a severed vein pulse by pulse the dragon would be too weak to return.

Although Marton Mere has been drained its kettle hole remains and the dragon lives on. In spring and summer water lilies do not grow above her lair. After the M55 was built a driver swore he saw a crocodile heading across the lanes to the mere.

A new village of holiday homes lies perilously close to the water’s edge. It is said the dragon haunts the dreams of those who sleep there and waits for the one who will share her message.

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*This story is based on the archaeology, history and folklore of Marton Mere, much of which is covered in Nick Moor’s extensive on-going project on the history of Blackpool and the Fylde: http://www.blackpoolhistory.co.uk/#!pdf/c1e71

Winter Ride

Preston

 

 

 

 

 

Fay bells chime. You ride a pale horse tonight.
My white mare pines for infinite horizons.

From this false security’s plastic peace
I breathe a prayer for ecstatic release.

Wrenched like tendons, reality is severed.
You open a snow storm, marvel and terror,

suburb stripped bare, hung trees and glittering ice,
a spectral host bathed in sweeping starlight.

Some people don’t see them. The rest run scared.
With my reckless steed I join the nightmare.

Our heart beats quicken to Annwn’s dread trance.
Street lamps flicker. Roofs slip into the distance.

Fairy lights and festive chants spread the county
from Blackpool Tower to Winter Hill, bright fountains

dissolve to torch parades. The present falters
revealing a past of village and bonfire,

chill chapped hands, hungry gatherings at cauldrons,
a labyrinth of padways mazed across Pilling

buried by snow fall, entombed beneath glaciers.
A cold unbearable sets in to kill.

And I fear I’m trapped in the Age of Ice
on the day of doom at the end of time

I cannot move my frozen mind. I scream
“Why? Winter King, bear me to these extremes?”

Your look commands; survey this fragile land,
ice crafting the mythos you toil to grasp,

reshaping the hills, renaming the towns,
creating the isle you know as Britain.

Wild laughter rings from the hollow landscape.
The fate of worlds tilts on a teetering brink.

I see your task, unruly guardian
of streaming vast ancestral tradition.

History rushes back and my course is clear,
My return to Penwortham swiftly steered,

shaking off snow, flexing my cold fingers,
I whisper thanks for your winter visions.