‘Gwyn ap Nudd, helper of hosts, armies fall before the hooves of your horse as swiftly as cut reeds to the ground.’ ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’
Three years have passed since the last time I celebrated the winter solstice here – the reeds still stand as do the standing stones and the tradition of dancing down the sun.
Who or what has fallen since the beginning of the disease?
More than armies, 181,000 deaths to this day.
The reeds still stand but something was cut down within me when I cleared other reed beds in the name of good service, knowing they would grow again, strove to become a good custodian of the Water Country but was not accepted.
I fell and got trampled beneath the huge round hooves of Your horse.
I’m not dead yet, I picked myself up, got back on my bicycle
but appeared a stranger at the Pagan gathering in my hi-vis jacket with my cycle helmet
needing to leave before it got dark
and chasing the sun west to the place I call home.
Here I attend the work of putting the cut reeds together again reciting not the names of long dead warriors Gwenddolau, Gwallog, Llachau…
but making a new bed
for the lost and weary souls who half-died and want to grow tall.
The reeds say that we will grow again no matter how hard we are trampled by the hooves of horses to the ground.
Last August, at Brockholes Nature Reserve, I helped on work parties common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium). Winnowing the tiny dark seeds from the fluffy white heads, placing 1 – 2 into each cell of a 60 cell tray, which we had firmly packed with compost, covering them over, praying they would grow.
We sowed 10,000 plants in total. Some have grown better than others. Later I learnt they were for Little Woolden Moss – a strange synchronicity for it was through contacts at Brockholes that I recently gained a six week contract planting common cottongrass and other peatland plants on this mossland (which was purchased by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust in 2012 after having been badly damaged by peat extraction).
Prior to gaining this work I had discovered my patron god Gwyn ap Nudd’s connection with peat bogs/mosslands* in the medieval Welsh poem ‘Y Pwll Mawn’ ‘The Peat Pit’ by Dafydd ap Gwilym. I promised to make an offering to Gwyn next time I visited one. As we were in lockdown I hadn’t expected to go to a peat bog soon (the only area of lowland raised level bog in South Ribble, Much Hoole Moss, has been drained and, to add insult to injury, commandeered as a paint balling site). On receiving the contract, when I asked what Gwyn wanted, he showed me a common cottongrass plant.
So my planting on Little Woolden Moss had meaning in terms of both conservation and devotion.
I loved my time there in spite of the difficulty and what some might call the monotony of the work – pushing heavy wheelbarrows of plant trays along unstable bunds and repeating the same motion of digging five holes with a spear-spade, planting common cottongrass plugs, moving on, for seven hours.
Although we had many cold starts and some days were grim – with constant rain and up to 50mph winds – most were temperate and we were surrounded by the spring song of skylarks and meadow pipits, curlews, lapwings display flighting, brown hares racing up and down the bunds, and deer tracks (but not deer) were often seen.
When encountering the glacial till, seeing the ancient bog oaks exposed by the excavations (with 8 metres of peat 10,000 years of the archaeological record had been stripped away, unknown stories, our exploitation only slightly redeemed in that the compost had been used to nurture new plants) I experienced profound feelings of sorrow, awe, and privilege in partaking in the restoration process.
I later learnt ‘Little Woolden’ derives from the Viking Vuluedene ‘Wolf’s Valley’. This was significant for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I had previously agreed to write a series of poems for a Ghost Wolf Trail in New Moss Wood, just down the road, for the Carbon Landscape Partnership. Secondly, Gwyn and his father, Nudd/Nodens, are associated with wolves.
Little Woolden Moss is one of the few places that, in the words of storyteller Martin Shaw, I have felt ‘claimed’ by. The only others are my locality of Penwortham and the stretch of the Ribble from the Douglas estuary to Brockholes and those to which I have been a fleeting visitor such as Glastonbury, Cadair Idris, Borth beach, and Coed Felenrhyd (beautiful in their own ways but not truly ‘mine’).
Thus I was disappointed when, after succeeding with an application, and attending an interview, I didn’t gain either of two paid Great Manchester Wetlands Traineeships. I received positive feedback from Lancashire Peatlands Initiative Officer, helpful for other interviews, but assumed I had no future in peatland restoration.
So I returned to my voluntary internship at Brockholes, which I continued to enjoy, 3 – 4 days a week. One of my jobs was watering the common cottongrass, which we planted last year, and is due to go to Little Woolden Moss in mid-June.
On Thursday, after watering the cottongrass, I heard my phone ringing and just missed the call.
“That’s odd,” I said to the Assistant Reserve Officer, with whom I was working, “nobody every rings me.”
When I checked the number I saw it belonged to the Lancashire Peatland Initiative Officer.
“You’d better ring him back,” my colleague said, with a knowing tone in his voice.
So I rang back and, to my surprise, was offered the Great Manchester Wetlands Traineeship on the mosslands, based at Little Woolden Moss, as the previous candidate had chosen another job.
So… of course… I have taken it. The funding for the job will last a year. I will hopefully be starting on Monday 26th April and I have arranged to work my contracted 30 hours a week Monday – Thursday so I can continue with my internship at Brockholes one day a week on a Friday. So it looks like I may be both watering the common cottongrass we planted at Brockholes and planting it on Little Woolden Moss.
In total there are another 45,000 plants to be planted on Little Woolden this year. When Gwyn asked me for an offering of cottongrass I wasn’t expecting it to be in quite such numbers or to be planting it later in the year and, if this traineeship leads to a permanent job in peatland restoration, for many years to come.
III. You were here before someone wounded the Fisher King
red dripping into blue
the blood from his groin
like blood from his queen’s menses
flowing into the sea
(when male and female had to bleed).
IV. You were here before the fae danced in your colours
in the hall of the King of Annwn like devils
burning red and cooling blue.
V. You sat on your perch and you watched
the gods –
some say you advised the Fisher King.
VI. His wound
is beginning to heal with the demise
The red rivers are flowing blue.
VII. You are no longer a myth
we cannot reach
on boats of fish bones
sailing for halcyon days
because they are here like you
on this river.
VIII. The Fisher King is fishing.
The red world is turning blue.
This poem is the third of three pieces about creatures who build their nests in sandy banks and can be seen at Brockholes Nature Reserve. I wrote it a couple of weeks ago when I was applying for a paid traineeship on the Kingfisher Trail – a 14 mile recreational route following the rivers of the Croal-Irwell Valley connecting ‘the rural West Pennine Moors to the urban communities of Bolton, Bury, and Salford’ (HERE). Although I didn’t get the job (of 300 applicants I made the top three) I intend to walk the trail.
In this poem I link the kingfisher to Nodens/Nudd, an ancient British god of hunting, fishing, healing and dreams, from whose mythos the story of the Fisher King may have arisen (although Brân is a candidate too) and to his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn/Faery, whose people make merry in red and blue costumes in his feasting hall.
Coincidentally, around the same time, Gwilym Morus-Baird published a video on ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and St Collen’ (HERE) where he discusses the symbology of Gwyn’s people wearing red and blue, which might have alchemical significance. Intriguingly he linked this to the two streams, Y Gwter Las and Y Gwter Goch which flow into Llyn y Fan Fach, the location of a story where a fairy bride is given away by a Fairy King-like figure.
‘It lives in Europe, in winding holes in sheer sandy hills’ – Linnaeus
I. Riparia riparia from ripa ‘of the river bank’ sounds like their djirr djirr prrt beside the Ribble
as they arrive in sixes, sevens, in their twenties, swoop in from Africa
tumbling for gnats.
II. Excited by the sight of their forked tails and white bellies
we run to prepare the nesting boxes –
all 300 with their sandy tunnels, dark and cavernous interiors, tightly locked back doors,
dig out the moat to protect them from predators.
III. When the world is too big, the arguments at home intolerable
I think of them snug in their hotel on their little island paradise.
“That’s it,” I tell my mum and dad. “I’m moving in with the sand martins.”
IV. I pack my rucksack full of feathers, gather twigs, bits of reed, to make my nest
and push my way down the long, dark, sandy tunnel
to the cave where I stay all summer between three pairs of sand martins and a mouse.
V. As I sit alone and listen to the chatter of males and females and soon their chicks I realise it is not unlike being at home –
surrounded by happy families.
I listen to the tales they tell their young – of the rite of leaving the cave, exiting the tunnel, of the bright sunlit river and countless flies that lie outside.
Of how all this was made for them by the goddess of the Ribble.
Of how mighty Belisama loves riparia riparia and her river-light guides them back.
VI. I hear them tell of distant gods, distant flying insects, distant animals whose shapes I see dancing on the cave walls –
gazelles, cheetahs, wild dogs, buffalo, hartebeest, scimitar-horned oxen with us no longer.
VII. I hear the tales of the drought years passed down from the legends who survived
(they have names like Long-Brown-Wing-Fly-Catcher White-Belly-Diver-River-Dancer… chattering on and on that I can’t pronounce in one breath)
the concerns of the elders who have seen future droughts in the patterns of flies.
VIII. I listen to their final farewells to their young and hear them depart to roosts where I cannot follow because
I do not have brown wings, a white belly, a forked tail.
I am not marked by a bar across my chest. Thus barred from becoming a bird where will I go this winter?
In early March, one of my tasks, as a conservation intern at Brockholes Nature Reserve, was preparing the sand martin nesting boxes on Number One Pit (this is the name of a lake that formed in a pit dug for sand and gravel quarrying).
We opened up the backs of the boxes, cleared out old nesting materials (which can be a hot bed for parasites), added fresh sand and re-filled the tunnels with sand for the birds to push their way through in imitation of tunnelling into a sandy bank. They usually excavate horizontal tunnels up to 1m in length with a chamber at the end.
At this point in time the sand martins had started arriving in sixes and sevens and the day we finished twenty were seen over Number One Pit. They tend to arrive between mid-March and mid-April and to lay their eggs in late May.
This poem was written following a conversation with one of my colleagues, who I prepared the boxes with, about how good it would be to move in with the sand martins.
One of my tasks as a conservation intern at Brockholes Nature Reserve over the winter was helping to clear the vegetation from the sandy banks, which are used as nesting sites by mining bees. Brockholes is next to the river Ribble, whose shifts of course since its valley was carved by a glacier during the Ice Age, have laid down sandy deposits (although most of the sand and gravel was quarried over a decade ago some remains).
These sandy banks are the perfect homes for mining bees (Andrena species). It is little known that, in Britain, of over 270 species of bee, there is only one species of honey bee, 24 species of bumblebee and around 250 species of solitary bees. 65 of the latter are mining bees. They make homes for their young in soil, sand, or clay, and can be found on river banks, road and railway embankments, cliff faces, garden lawns, allotments, open woodlands, and moorlands.
During their brief life-span of four to six weeks, in spring and summer, female mining bees gather pollen on their hind legs and take it to where they have excavated their nests. They dig a tunnel to a chamber, add pollen to strengthen the walls, lay an egg, seal it shut, and move on to the next. Once laying is complete they perish. The only function of the males is to mate with the females, after which they die. The larvae over-winter in the chambers and emerge in the spring to restart the cycle.
One of the most common species is the ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria). TheLatin term cinerarius means‘of ashes’ and refers to the broad ash grey bands on the thorax of the female who is otherwise black. It flies from April to August and is an important pollinator of fruit trees.
Another is the tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva). The female has bright red hairs on her thorax. It flies from March to June and feeds on a variety of nectar-producing and pollen-bearing plants and trees.
The early mining bee (Andrena haemorhhoa) is named for the blood-red tip on its abdomen and red hairs on its thorax and flies from April to July. One of the defining behaviours of the wool carder bee (Anthidium maculatum) is collecting hairs from plants for its nest. The small sallow mining bee (Andrena praecox) is a sallow specialist. There are many more species of these intriguing bees.
Learning about mining bees and their favoured habitat in sandy banks has led me to contemplate how I have long intuited a connection between Belisama, ‘Shining One’, the goddess of the Ribble, and bees. At first I thought this was because she is connected with light and sunshine and the coming of spring and summer, when bees emerge and take flight, but now I see she has a particular connection with mining bees who build their homes on the Ribble’s banks and sandy banks left by the river.
granodiorite from Southern Scotland, Criffel granite, Shap granite, Eskdale granite, granite from Loch Doon, Borrowdale volcanics, Thornton limestone, Chatburn limestone.
Speak to me of glaciers that had no names.
Speak to me not of the death of your children and how they laid their gravestones in a ritual long long lost to us.
Speak to me not of your sacrifice in shaping this land.
We must be as stone and not mourn the snowflakes vanishing from the palms of our hands.
Outside the office at Brockholes Nature Reserve there is a 2.5 tonne boulder made of grandiorite which was extracted from Number One Pit beside the M6. Unlike the sandstone boulders nearby it does not fit with our local geology. This has led geologists to the conclusion it was transported from the Lake District or Southern Scotland by a glacier during the Last Ice Age 115,000– 11,700 years ago.
This reached its maximum 24,000 years ago and two of the ice advances, Heinrich 2 and 4**, extended to and covered Lancashire and Cheshire, whilst Heinrich 1 and Loch Lomond did not. When the glaciers melted they deposited their ‘suspended load’ of ‘boulder clay’ or ‘glacial till’. At Brockholes the sand and gravel were 20 metres thick leading to the area being used a quarry.
With these materials the grandiorite boulder was removed along with other erratics such as granite from South Scotland, Borrowdale Volcanics from the Lake District, and Chatburn Limestone from Clitheroe. The sandstone boulders near the car park may be local or from Pendle Hill or Longridge Fell.
Near Kirkham and Oldham, where ‘the rate of the ice melt’ was ‘equal to the movement of the ice sheet’ for a long period of time, lines of moraine (accumulations of glacial till), were deposited.
The vast volumes of water from the melting glaciers were also responsible for forging the valley of the Ribble – ‘the meander belt between the river cliffs is too wide to have been created’ by the river.
When dead ice was left behind by glaciers, became surrounded by sediment, then melted, it left kettle holes. This resulted in the formation of lakes such as Martin Mere and Marton Mere and the others that formed Lancashire’s Region Linuis ‘Lake Region’ and some of its numerous ponds.***
Since then we have dug out the sand and gravel and drained the lakes yet new lakes have formed in old pits. Number One Pit at Brockholes, where the grandiorite boulder was found, is now a lake and 182 species of birds have been recorded there including bittern, curlew, lapwing, and sand martins.
The Nature Reserve as we know it has originated from a combination of geological and man-made factors. In the shaping of the land during the Last Ice Age I see the work of Winter’s King and his glacial children. When I touch the glacial erratics or watch birds descending onto the lakes I see his hand.
*The term ‘erratic’ originates from the Latin errare ‘to wander’. **Heinrich events are caused by the the collapse of northern hemisphere ice shelves and release of icebergs which affect the climate elsewhere. ***Most of the present-day ponds in Lancashire formed in former marl pits dug in the 18th century.
white paint spots orange nail varnish road-marking tail
cannot capture his majesty.
When he comes to me with his great tail-question forefeet planted firmly on the floor
waxen crest waving like a dragon’s
and asks me to bear his progeny – in back-leg leaf origami to fold up our eggs
I am tempted by his awesome belly-signature
the colour of fire the setting sun reminding me of his salamandrine past in ponds and pools of the Jurassic
to make his lek my dwelling place and give birth to efts –
each with their unique belly-stamp only one of each in this ever-burning universe
with a fire-tipped tongue give them mystical names – Sun-Spotted, Fire-Born, Gold-Eye, Dragon Crest, Alchemist.
He forgets I am a nun – instead
I promise to renew the pond-ways, the pond-scape, the ecology of land and language so he, his mate, his young will inspire poetry here on and on.
*I recently started a conservation internship at Brockholes Nature Reserve and the task of the volunteer work party on Tuesday was building habitat heaps from alder logs. Later in the day, serendipitously, Lorna Bennett, the reserve officer, found a great crested newt along with approximately 20 adult and juvenile smooth newts, 2 juvenile toads, and 5 frogs whilst moving some old compost bags. These amphibians have been placed safely into a habitat heap to hibernate over winter before they emerge in spring and hopefully head to the new ponds to breed. The ponds were created for them by LWT’s work with Natural England to remedy the decline in great crested newts.
For me the lockdown has been a safe bubble and has had a number of benefits. I’ve had the opportunity to cultivate a better relationship with my immediate reality at home, where I live with my parents. I’ve been doing more gardening and this has included food growing. We are now self-sufficient in lettuce, green vegetables, and fresh herbs. This has fitted with having more time to cook with them, to make tasty meals from scratch, my favourites being pea and mint soup and minty lamb stew.
The raspberries long ago strayed from their patch and ramble freely around the garden and they have gifted us a brilliant crop this year in spite of the rain.
I’ve had the time and space to begin repairing my mental health. I’ve struggled with anxiety all my life and, since my late teens, used alcohol as a way of self-medicating. I stopped drinking in January and, over the last few months, have completed a series of counselling sessions through the Minds Matter service.
This has resulted in me finding out that the source of my anxiety is likely having Asperger’s and that’s why I struggle with loud, noisy social situations, whether in public or online, and thrive on time alone or in quiet company, working on the land, in devotion to my gods, and nurturing my creativity.
In the place of alcohol, which obliviated my worries only temporarily, I’ve developed some worry management strategies. This has included keeping a worry diary and assessing whether a worry is practical or hypothetical. If it’s practical I have problem solving techniques to deal with it, and if hypothetical, a technique of setting it aside for a worry period so it doesn’t interfere with the rest of my day. This has made my worries seem less overwhelming thus I’m less worried about worry itself. Other small dietary changes like excluding caffeine and cane sugar have helped too.
The most major result is the realisation that my mental health limitations make it more important to focus on my gift – my awen, my creativity. This has led to my next book, The Dragon’s Tongue, in which I explore a myth of origins personal to me and my deities.
From the safety of my bubble I’ve been watching the lockdown ease. The shops, the hairdressers, the pubs opening, the traffic building up. I barely ever buy clothes, decided to clip my hair off, have stopped drinking, and rarely borrow my dad’s car, preferring to walk or cycle, so this hasn’t affected me much (although the busyness of the roads has made walking and cycling more unpleasant).
Yesterday, however, my bubble finally went pop. I cycled to Brockholes Nature Reserve for the first time since its reopening for a walk. My long term plan for finding paid work that doesn’t have a negative impact on my mental health has been getting a job in conservation which involves working outside alone or in the quiet company of other staff and volunteers. I was due to begin an internship at Brockholes to gain the necessary experience before the lockdown began and it was postponed.
On arrival I was pleased to see the meadows in flower with a mixture of lady’s bedstraw, thistle, vetch, ox-eye daisies, red campion, ragged robin, bird’s foot trefoil and other wild flowers.
Yet when I walked past the office I saw and spoke to the reserve manager, who informed me there have been staffing cuts. Everything is up in the air at the moment. If I was still to take the internship there would be less work and my opportunities would be limited to ‘income projects’ with less conservation.
The prospect of finding paid work with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust or any other conservation organisation is looking bleak. As is finding employment in any sector aside from key work. The future, due to coronavirus and the environmental crisis is a great unknown, with little chance of ‘normal’, much less ‘better’.
Still, I’m going to continue with my internship and other conservation volunteering whether it leads to paid work or not as I value the work of the Wildlife Trust and it is a way of serving my land and gods.
And I’m going to pull my bubble back around myself for a while and continue to use this opportunity to ‘tend to my domain – myth, gods, and the soul’, as my deity advised this morning.
The rain falls. The leaves fall. Trampled underfoot they turn to mulch. They squelch beneath my trainers. As again I run past the man from across the road with the black Labrador and walking stick he says, “You’re going round in circles”. It’s necessary for a run to be a circle leading from home and back again and it can be made of smaller circles – same place, different time, a little further ahead.
Running’s simpler than writing. You know through sheer perseverance, putting one foot in front of the other, breath by breath, you can achieve that goal of going a little further, a little faster each week. It’s similar with Taekwondo. Turn up, train hard, you’ll progress through the belts. Although, of course, there are limits. As an injury prone thirty-eight year old a half marathon in 2hrs 10mins has proved to be my threshold and I doubt I’ll have the flexibility and bounce to get beyond Second Dan.
Writing’s trickier. Hours put in and perseverance are no guarantee one’s work will be any better. I completed my two best poems in 2012 when I was new to poetry and polytheism and riding a wave of excitement and inspiration. ‘Proud of Preston’ and ‘The Bull of Conflict’ were gifts from my gods.
The awen, the divine breath of inspiration, no matter how much one chants, does not come on command but flows to those who are in the right time and place and ready to do the work. There are no check points, no belts, only that shiver of beauty and truth, which is confirmed by the reactions of others. I believe this sense of awe can be found in the three books I’ve published. It was felt when I read the poems and stories back to my gods and to the land and when I’ve shared them in public.
Since my completion of Gatherer of Souls I’ve been slogging my guts out trying to find a new and original take on the Brythonic myths and failed because in doing so I only made them more inaccessible. My quest to explore Annwn and share my findings resulted in fragmentary obscure visions. I seemed to have hit a limit and the lack of awen signalled I was heading in the wrong direction.
This was made worse because I was trapped in the vicious circle (“you’re going round in circles!”) of working in a supermarket job I could not leave until I’d found a way to make a living from my writing yet being in that trap, and it making me miserable, was depriving me of the inspiration to escape.
I’ve been here in the past, to break that circle, only to enter a wider one circling it. I give up a job in order to put all my best efforts into my writing in the hope this time round I’ll succeed in making a living from it, fail, go back to another job, then in six months to a year’s time I’m quitting again – same place, different time, only a little further ahead.
This all came to a head when I decided to try writing fantasy because it sells better than poetry and polytheism. Whilst attempting to dream up a fantastical wetland I killed a dragonfly on the way to a real one.
It was a wake-up call on many levels. It showed me I wasn’t listening to the land. This was partly because I was trying to imagine up a fantasy novel rather than focusing on the living beings around me. On a deeper level it was because I was trapped in a vicious circle that had severed my connection.
Shortly afterwards two things happened at once. One bad – I had a horrendous night at work where I was stuck on the tills. They kept breaking down whenever I put potatoes on the scales and I had to move myself and all the customers onto the next one, then onto the next one, leaving a trail of broken tills.
One good – the episode with the dragonfly at Brockholes Nature Reserve prompted me to look at volunteering opportunities with the Lancashire Wildlife Trustand I was struck by the realisation this might be a way into paid work I enjoyed as well as a way of reconnecting with and giving back to the land.
Finally I divined a way of breaking out of both circles. Firstly by starting volunteering as a way into a job I will stick at due to its importance in this time of climate crisis and because it is a way of serving the land and my gods. Secondly by giving up the illusion I will ever make a living from the type of writing my vocation calls for.
So I’ve handed in my notice at work and am starting volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Woodland Oasis and Carbon Landscapes projects. Both fit really well with my values because they involve restoring wild landscapes and connecting people with the land. The latter provides training qualifications in ‘carbon skills’ and it’s looking possible I may be able to contribute some poetry as a way of inspiring others to love and be inspired by the land around them. I’m hoping such work will feed and nourish my creativity and lead to new unexpected avenues to explore.
At last I am moving forward onto a path that will be both materially and spiritually fulfilling.