The Burnt Mosslands

It’s Nos Calan Mai. In our old British myths, this is the night on which, centuries ago, a red dragon’s fiery scream blighted the land of Britain. On the next day, Calan Mai, the eternal rivals, Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ and Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White Son of Mist’ battle for their beloved, the flower maiden Creiddylad. (If either the Summer King or the Winter King take her forever the world will end.)

Five days ago, on Monday, I started my traineeship on the Greater Manchester Wetlands. I was not, thankfully, thrown into either of the fires that had happened on the mosslands in the area that week, but I attended their aftermath.

On Little Woolden Moss I visited the area of wet heath where the characteristic heathers had been burnt along with purple moor grass and brash. This was essential habitat for common lizards, field voles, and field mice, and a crossing place for bog bush crickets.

Gas pipes run beneath and, if the fire had penetrated the peat, it could have resulted in a blaze like a dragon’s breath, like Gwythyr’s flaming sword, which could have taken out the gas supply to much of the surrounding area.

Luckily, the pipes had been protected by scrapes, which had filled with water and been cultivated by sphagnum mosses, providing resistance to the flames.

The fire on Little Woolden Moss was 500 metres square whereas the fire on Red Moss had devastated over a dozen hectares – as far as the eye could see. Whilst the damage to the bog itself, burning off only purple moor grass and leaving the sphagnum mosses intact, was superficial, it was damaging for wildlife.

Small mammals, such as bank vole, water vole, and shrews; amphibians such as toads, frogs, and smooth newts; ground nesting birds such as lapwings and skylark would have lost their lives and, if not, their homes. On my visit I saw a broken nest and lapwings still display flighting over the burnt moss.

The plastic piling dams and drainage pipes were also damaged by the heat. 

This, I am sorry to tell you, was not the work of gods or dragons, but humans who had purposefully lit the fires because it was their sick idea of fun.

Still, the symbology stands, the connections between Nodens/Nudd/Lludd, who put a stop to the dragon’s scream, and his son, Gwyn ap Nudd, the lord of the once misty peat bogs whose sphagnum mosses dull his rival’s fiery feet.

On Monday my line manager suggested I take the restoration of the fire damaged wet heath on Little Woolden Moss as one my personal projects. I had never suspected my work on the mosslands would be so directly connected with Gwyn’s battle against Gwythyr.

This is not a warrior’s, or a poet’s, but a healer’s role – something I never imagined I would step into. Once I believed everything I touched died, but sowing seeds and planting flowers with Creiddylad has already proved that is not the case.

She keeps telling me everything comes back to plants – no sphagnum, no mossland; no heather, no heathland; no food for the bees or the butterflies. She is life and, because of our greed, every day, every night is a battle for her. The plants will be my allies against the anthropogenic forces creating an eternal summer.

Gwythyr ap Greidol: An Ancient British God of Fire, Sun, Summer, and Seed

Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ appears in the medieval Welsh story Culhwch and Olwen as the rival of Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ for the love of Creiddylad ‘Heart’s Desire’. That he is a fitting opponent for Gwyn and consort for Creiddylad, who are the son and daughter of the ancient British god Lludd/Nudd/Nodens, suggests he is also an important British deity.

Strip away the Christian veneer from Culhwch and Olwen and we have a story in which Gwyn (Winter’s King) and Gwythyr (Summer’s King) battle for Creiddylad (a fertility goddess). On Nos Galan Gaeaf, Winter’s Eve, Gwyn abducts Creiddylad to Annwn* and Gwythyr rides to Annwn and attempts to rescue her and is imprisoned. The abduction of Creiddylad and imprisonment of Gwythyr explain the coming of winter. On Calan Mai, the First Day of Summer, Gwythyr battles Gwyn for Creiddylad, wins, and she returns with him to Thisworld and together they bring fertility to the land. This explains the coming of summer. Gwyn and Gwythyr may earlier have been seen to slay one another on Nos Galan Gaeaf and Calan Mai and take it in turns to enter a sacred marriage with Creiddylad, who acted as a powerful sovereignty figure rather than just a maiden to be fought over.

It is clear from this tale that Gwythyr is our ancient British god of summer. In another episode in Culhwch and Olwen we catch a glimpse of Gwythyr’s associations with fire and sunshine. As he is walking over a mountain he hears ‘weeping and wailing’ and sees its source is a burning anthill. He cuts the anthill off at ground level and rescues the ants from the blaze. We do not know what caused the fire. Did their nest, which ants orientate toward the sun, a little like solar panels, in a summer day, absorb too much heat? Or was the fire caused by Gwythyr’s scorching feet? We have seen that one translation of his father’s name, Greidol, is Scorcher, and we know wildfires break out in the summer. Here we see the dangers of fire and the sun and Gwythyr’s attempt at remediation.

The ants go on to help Gwythyr to gather nine hestors of flax seed which was sown in ‘tilled red soil’, in a field that has remained barren, so it can be ploughed into a new field, to provide the linen for Olwen’s veil in preparation for her marriage to Culhwch. It is possible to read Gwythyr’s association with seed being linked to the ‘male’ side of fertility and with doing the groundwork for the arrival of summer for his bride, Creiddylad, might also require a linen veil for her wedding dress.

The ancient Britons used fire to clear the forest to plant hazel trees and wildfires bring about new growth – in Gwythyr’s associations with fire and seed we find these processes.

These stories show that Gwythyr is a god of summer, fire, and generation in Thisworld who is opposed to Gwyn, a god of winter, ice, and the destructive forces of Annwn, the Otherworld. On the surface one is a bringer of life and the other a bringer of death yet their relationship is one of interdependence. It is necessary they take it in turns to enter a sacred marriage with Creiddylad as an eternal summer or an endless winter would have equally deadly consequences for both worlds.

As Gwythyr’s story was passed on through the oral tradition he and his father were depicted as allying with Arthur against Gwyn and the ‘demons’ of Annwn and playing a role in their demise. Thus Gwythyr is associated with other culture gods like Amaethon, the Divine Ploughman, and Gofannon, the Divine Smith, who help the Christian king to civilise the wild and shut out the Annuvian.

This process may be traced back to the Neolithic revolution when farming began to replace the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the cultivation of seed hunting and foraging, the grain god (Gwythyr) the hunter (Gwyn). Christians did their best to eliminate the veneration of Gwyn by depicting him and his spirits as demons yet they continued to be loved in folk culture as the fairies and their king.

The stories of Gwythyr, by name, did not survive in the folk tradition, but it possible to find a likeness between him and other grain gods** who die a ritual death at the end of the harvest – when Gwyn, the harvester of souls, reaps down his rival and Gwythyr and the seed return to Annwn.

From the Neolithic period our society as a whole has favoured Gwythyr over Gwyn. We have created an eternal summer with the fire of Gwythyr in the engines of industry creating a society in which the cold and darkness of winter has been eliminated by electric lighting and central heating. Crops grow all year round under artificial lights. This has unsurprisingly led to global heating, to the climate crisis, to the scorching fires on Winter Hill where I perceive Gwythyr battling his rival. Ironically, and tellingly, these two great gods and the great goddess they battle for have been forgotten.

Yet, slowly, the worship of Gwyn and Creiddylad is reviving amongst modern polytheists. I know few who venerate Gwythyr and believe this is because his stories have been subsumed by those of other grain gods. This is a shame, for Gwythyr’s stories contain deep wisdom relating how fire, sun, summer and seed have played a role in the climate crisis from a polytheist perspective.

As a devotee of Gwyn, committed to the otherside, to the Annuvian, to redressing the balance, Gwythyr is a god whose powers I acknowledge through the summer and during the harvest period although I do not worship him. I would be interested to hear how and whether other polytheists relate to Gwythyr at this time.

*Annwn has been translated as ‘the Deep’ and the ‘Not-World’ and is the medieval Welsh Otherworld or Underworld.
**Such as Lleu Llaw Gyffes/Lugus and John Barleycorn.

Uffern ar y Ddaear

Uffern ar y Ddaear – Hell on Earth

I’m surrounded by the smell of dead grass
dreaming of a machine that creates water from nothing.
Someone’s got the radio on too loud and always a baby is wailing.

I lift my nose and smell the smoke on the wind and my throat
is already whining for my master dead on the moors
like cottongrass, heather, butterfly, grasshopper,

where the battle that began on the first of May is still going on
between a fire ignited by one who belongs to the inferno
and the fire fighters with hoses, beaters, leaf blowers.

If only they could bring the rains and autumn winds,
summon them into a summer already too hot and too long,
where reservoirs empty and carbon reservoirs bake, burn, reignite.

I hear they’re trying to save the mast, 1000 feet high, which I saw
lit red like a warning sign beneath the full moon transmitting not only
radio, television for the BBC, ITV, C4, signals for mobile phones,

but some kind of howl we’ve somehow got used to between silences.
What if it goes down like the plane that crashed on the 27th of February
in 1958 when the snow was so cold no-one could rescue the 35 dead

who still roam the hill cursing the faulty radio signals and the drones
flying overhead in the way of the helicopter pouring its cauldron
of water from the reservoirs over the baking baking peat?

When the endless chatter ceases will everyone hear the howl
pouring the dead down Winter Hill like radio waves
from the spring where the Douglas starts

and the mourning song for Winter’s King
dead like a bog body amongst the burial mounds
beneath the burning feet of his rival who is ever victorious?

When we try to shut Hell’s gate with torches on each side
and inside red as a death hound’s oesophagus will we realise
the throat will never close and the howl wrenched from it is us?

800px-Campfire_flames

*This poem is based on the Winter Hill fire and the mythic battle between Gwyn ap Nudd (Winter) and Gwythyr ap Greidol (Summer).

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.

Of Ducklings, Ganesh and Woodland Fires

Thursday the 9th of July was a strange and crazy day. My disastrous morning began with buying blu-tac to put up signs for a conference at work: signs I realised on arrival I hadn’t printed off. It went downhill from there. After managing to print the signs double-sided and procrastinating whether to leave at the agreed time of 9.45am after doing such a botched job, I fled to the Lancashire Archives.

On arrival I realised I had spent the £5 I put in my purse for a photography pass on blu-tac. Apologising and rushing to the cash machine, my head was in such a spin I entered the wrong pin code thrice and had to go to my bank to get a new one and ask for the money in person.

That done, I had a reasonable amount of success in photographing the 1811 Enclosure Act for Fulwood Forest and accompanying map and acquiring Ronald Cunliffe Shaw’s massive tome The Royal Forest of Lancaster from the basement of the Harris Library. With the huge book under my arm, feeling slightly nervous about dropping or damaging it, I headed home.

The Forest of Lancashire by Ronald Cunliffe Shawe

The Forest of Lancashire by Ronald Cunliffe Shawe

Walking down Riverside beside the Ribble, crossing a street, I caught the silvery glint of a pair of glasses. Stopping to pick them up and wondering what to do with them, I heard a shout from behind. It was a postman, who told me the glasses were his and he had lost them because he had been trying to catch a duckling and put it back over the river wall.

Assuming said duckling had been caught and put back I walked on, only moments later, to see her; striped tawny and brown running panickedly with a flap of short wings dangerously close to the roadside. With no idea how I was going to catch her or where to put the book I began following her with the aim, at least, of making sure she wasn’t run over.

Riverside

Riverside

As the duckling pursuit approached Penwortham Bridge a couple on a tandem bike stopped to help. The woman took my book and her partner and I managed to herd the duckling into a front yard. Four bins stood on the right. When she ran behind we manoeuvred them to form a make-shift duck pen.

When we finally thought we had caught her she slipped through the cyclists’ hands yet he managed to catch her in the next garden whilst I was left explaining to the owner of the house why we had used his bins to make a duck-pen.

The cyclist handed me the duckling and the pair departed. Realising quickly that holding the frightened creature was a job that necessitated constant attention and two hands, and with no sign of the duckling’s mother in sight, I asked the local resident if he would hold her whilst I phoned for advice.

13th C statue of Ganesh, courtesy of Wikipedia

13th C statue of Ganesh, courtesy of Wikipedia

He kindly obliged, inviting me into the porch of his vibrantly decorated house where I borrowed his telephone to ring the RSPCA whilst standing in front of a statue of Ganesh. I first met Ganesh when I performed Puja to him at a Druid and Hindu gathering last year. Beforehand I had been stressed as I’d been told at the last minute I had to drastically cut down a talk I’d spent some time preparing and rehearsing. After the Puja, I felt calm and my contribution went well.

Whilst navigating the phone system of the RSPCA was an absolute nightmare, Ganesh provided a sense of reassurance. Eventually I got put through to a human operator by pressing the line for ‘tangled and trapped animals’. She told me to remain beside the river and look out for the mother for a couple of hours and if I didn’t see her to call them back.

Realising I couldn’t hold the duckling and use my phone I called my friend, Nick, who was luckily in town and said he would meet me. Leaving my book at the Broadgate resident’s house, I walked up river and noticed a small family of ducks. However, the mother showed no sign of having lost one of her flock.

When I met Nick he told me he had phoned his friend, Lee, an animal rescue volunteer. She arrived within minutes in her van with a bird carrier. When I mentioned the family Lee said as it wasn’t certain the duckling belonged to them it was safer for her to take her home. Farewells were made to the duckling who ran swiftly into the carrier then, clearly exhausted, settled down.

After a catch-up with Nick, Lee departed. Reassured the duckling was safe, I picked up the book and thanked the gentleman. Thinking back, I couldn’t help pondering how if I hadn’t been delayed at the archives I would have been home a couple of hours ago reading my book and wouldn’t have seen and rescued the duckling at all.

However this strange chain of events had not reached its end. Close to home I found my local valley filled with smoke. Although I assumed it must be from someone’s bonfire I checked the woodland and was glad I did as someone had built and abandoned a large fire which, with the wind, looked perilously close to the withered cow parsley and other dry vegetation.

I rushed home, dropped off the book and picked up two buckets and a jug to fill them from Fish House Brook. After ten trips the fire was out. I was left exhausted and shaken by the realisation if it hadn’t been for my delay at the archives and the duckling pursuit I might have got home before the fire was lit and it might have caused considerable damage to the valley.

GCV Fire

Doused fire, Greencroft Valley

Looking back I can make no clear sense of the events. Yet what stands out is the slow inexorable pull of nature away from the white noise of forms and formalities. From the confines of the university to the archives and enclosed and mapped landscape of 1811 to the living webbed running feet of the duckling to the manual labour of filling buckets from my local stream, with a hiss, fizz and sizzle, dousing the fire in the valley I love.

A clearish lesson is I’m much better at rescuing ducklings and fire-fighting than administration and I feel more myself and grounded in these tasks and the land. And what of Ganesh? Hindu god of removing obstacles, peace and new beginnings? I hope his appearance signals a time when I can clear away my failures, renew my connection with my land and my gods and move on, even if means sacrificing some of the ambitions that led me to the position I’m currently trapped in.

Birkacre Rioters

‘They went in about 2 o’clock and before 4 destroy’d all the machinery, the Great Wheel, and set fire to the broken frames’
Home Office Papers, October 1799

They had the loudest drums. The boldest banners. The brightest beating hearts. They approached the mill multicoloured; axes, hatchets, guns raised high.

Afternoon sun who has seen many histories made and forgotten gazed on and off the mish-mash of blades as they smashed in the doors.

Unafraid of battle powder and swan shot they fought black-faced against veterans who were no match for their shouting thousands.

Then they took on the frames. Monsters who guillotined their craft. Spinning engines, carding engines, roving engines, twisting wheels, cotton wheels, cotton reels they axed and trampled.

Then they took on the Great Wheel. Tore it off its axis. Brought it down in splinters. Struck the matches. A giant flaming wheel blazed where workers toiled.

And the fire blazed. And the fire blazed. And the fire blazed. And lit the heart of General Ludd and his wives and daughters. All the Luddite sons.

And the fire of Birkacre lit the hearts of the Chartists. Non-conformists. Suffragettes. Forgotten rebels.

And we remember their fire in times of trouble. Hold it close to our hearts.

***

Birkacre was a cotton mill in the Yarrow Valley in Chorley, which Richard Arkwright leased from 1777. It was one of the first mills to make use of his water frame (the first was in Cromford). In 1779 following riots by stocking workers in Nottingham and a slump in the cotton industry, cotton workers turned against the new machines. On Sunday 4th October a mob descended on Birkacre, smashed all the machinery and used it to set fire to the the mill, which they burnt to the ground. Arkwright withdrew his lease shortly afterward. It was rebuilt two years later and used for calico printing, dying and bleaching. The works in the Birkacre area were closed down in 1939. In the 1980’s the derelict land was reclaimed as Yarrow Valley Park. More about the park and its history can be found in this leaflet. It’s a beautiful area and a visit is highly recommended.

Site of Birkacre Mill

Site of Birkacre Mill

Big Lodge

Big Lodge

Mill Leat?

Mill Leat?

Brigantia Stone

Brigantia Stone Earlier in January I dreamt the Oak and Feather Grove were holding a celebration on the West Pennine Moors around a sandstone monument carved with a goddess figure rooted in the earth drawing up its energy to combine with shining rays of sunshine. I knew this was a ‘Brigantia Stone.’

Today is the Gaelic festival of Imbolc, which is connected to the goddess Brighid or Bride. In Scottish mythology she is imprisoned in a mountain by the Cailleach throughout winter and escapes her prison in spring, bringing new growth and regeneration. In Wales she is known as Ffraid and this festival is Gwyl Ffraid.

Here in Northern England she is known as Brigantia. Her name is Brythonic and means ‘High One.’ She was the warrior goddess of the Brigantes tribe, whose tribal confederation dominated the North until the Roman Invasions. I associate Brigantia with high places, locally with the West Pennine Moors and in particular Great Hill.

Great Hill from Brindle

Great Hill viewed from Brindle

In contrast to Brighid, whose stories and roles as a poet, smith and healer are well documented, we know comparatively less about Brigantia. Seven inscriptions exist to her across Northern England and Southern Scotland. She is equated with Victory, and on a statue with Minerva in warrior form, holding a spear and a globe of Victory and wearing a Gorgon’s head.

In my experience, Brigantia is a goddess of the wild harshness of the high hills. A warrior for certain and a goddess of the all-consuming fire of the Awen, the hammer beat of creation and a forger of souls. She’s the first goddess I met. Because she’s a poet and we share a fiery irascible temperament I thought she would become my patroness.

I was wrong and the reason behind this was a difficult one to learn. I worked very closely with Brigantia for two years whilst completing a fantasy novel. It was about a fire magician who, in order to bring down capitalism, made a pact with fire elementals which resulted in his near destruction of the world and death in the flames by which he made his pact. With my anti-hero a part of me burnt and was consumed.

After completing the novel I realised it was too dark and incomprehensible to publish. I’d wasted two years, wasn’t cut out to be a fantasy writer and and I’d lost my trust in Brigantia.

The death of my novel left a void. And into it stepped my true god. Perhaps this was Brigantia’s plan. I needed to learn the dangers of working with the untrammelled Awen; fire in the head, pure imagining, without relation to this world or the realities of the Otherworld, to which Gwyn ap Nudd opened the gates.

Afterward I resented her. Because I’d sold my car and could no longer drive to the Pennines we also became physically distanced. In spite of this, looking down on my valley from the surrounding hills, in the fire of the Awen, she has continued to be a presence in my life. I still honour her as the warrior goddess of the North. But we rarely speak in person.

My dream of the Brigantia Stone came as a surprise, even though Brigantia is in many ways a patroness of the Oak and Feather grove. I experienced the calling to redraw the stone for our Imbolc celebration (which I’d sketched in my diary) in colour, as a Bardic contribution to the grove and for Brigantia as an offering on her festival day. It came out perfectly first time, so well I decided to make copies for each member of the grove.

Lynda has suggested we take a grove walk to find the stone on the West Pennine Moors. Whether it ‘really’ exists on the moors, or in their dreamscape, I’m not certain. However, I do know it is the time to acknowledge and accept Brigantia’s role and place in my life.

Brigantia Altar

Expanding the By-Pass

Daffodils leap like shots of fire.
Primroses curse in white-yellow stains.
Blackthorn’s eldritch stars explode
As chainsaws rip aside the bright spring day.

Mock cairns of woodchip
Spat from hawthorn’s frame
Line the road of death
I will drive down
I will drive down to avoid the rain.

Penwortham By-Pass

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Technically I won’t be driving down the by-pass because I swapped my car for a bicycle. However I’m not adverse to getting a lift and still feel responsible for the death of the hawthorns who have been companions on the path beside the by-pass for many years.

Winter Kingdom

As I make my circuit stars hold vigil in an icy breath.
Roses of Annwn bring beauty from death.
Wintering starlings spotted with snow
sleep in a tree that nobody knows.
There is a courtship of stability in this kingdom of cold
where we reknit the bonds as dream unfolds
in shadows of farmhouses down the pilgrim’s path
through old stony gates in footsteps of the past
to the healing well where a serpent’s eye
sees through the layers of time’s disguise.
A procession sways down the old corpse road
where the lych gate swings open and closes alone.
From the empty church bells resound.
Reasserting its place on the abandoned mound
a castle extends to the brink of the sky.
Within its dark memory a fire comes to life.
As warriors gather to warm their cold hands
I know I am a stranger in a strange land.

Fungi, Greencroft Valley

 

*Roses of Annwn is a kenning for mushrooms I came across in The Faery Teachings by Orion Foxwood

Wild Hunt Villanelle

When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
Hurtling from the deeps and bowers of unseen Annwn
They raze all life with their sundering might,

Sweeping heavens black warriors of starry white
Unite with rebel cries to form a spectral fugue.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Cities tremble as the harrowing horns descry
Ghost white horses, hounds of death and long lost truth.
They raze all life with their sundering might

As they gather up the souls of the dead in flight
Striking with a fear none but their kindred can endure.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Bringing down the skies and singing back the light
Around our fires only hope can see us through.
They raze all life with their sundering might

Then vanish to Annwn from tumultuous heights
Ending the old year and heralding in the new.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
They raze all life with their sundering might.