Gatherer of Souls

I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain…
I am alive, they in their graves!
– Words spoken by Gwyn ap Nudd in The Black Book of Carmarthen XXXIII

Spring is here, daffodils
amongst the headstones,
flowers on the cenotaph
grieving summers of war-

shells shattering spirit paths,
ditches filled with corpses,
a perverse test of love
for brave young fools

and you being liminal,
battle rage and compassion
on the blood soaked fields
where banshees wail

gathering the fallen
from amongst explosions,
returning to Prydain
wracked and torn.

Spring is here, yet in
Annwn’s long autumn you know
the weight of the battle dead,
the sorrow behind the veil.

War memorial in Penwortham

Penwortham Fairy Funeral

Penwortham Fairy Funeral is a legend based around Castle Hill, a site of religious and formerly military importance in my home town. The first part of this article presents the original version and its later developments in the context of their placement in the landscape. The second will discuss its origin and meaning within the context of British foklore.

The Fairy Funeral receives its first known mention in James Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878). A cow-doctor and younger man called Robin are walking home by moonlight from a farmhouse at the foot of Castle Hill to Longton. They climb the hill and pass through St Mary’s graveyard. As they make their exit the clock tolls midnight. They walk down a track to the Lodge, where they hear a passing bell. The gate of the Lodge swings open and a little figure wearing dark clothing and a red cap steps into the avenue chanting. He is followed by a cavalcade of similar figures carrying a coffin and singing a requiem.

The coffin is open. Robin looks inside and sees his miniature corpse, dewy and pale. The procession continues into the graveyard followed by the men. Driven by dread, Robin reaches out and touches the leading fairy. The cavalcade vanishes and a storm sweeps in. Driven mad by the scene, a month later Robin falls to his death from a haystack and is buried in the graveyard where he had seen the funeral of his double take place (1).

Fairy Funeral 1

1850’s map, from Mario Maps, route marked in red

A later version appears to have been passed down by word of mouth. Eli Robinson and Giley Leatherbarrow are walking home from the Black Horse pub in Preston. Having consumed too many Thwaites bitters they decide to take a short cut through Penwortham Wood, which lies on the east slope of Castle Hill. Following the mud track, which is known in the locality as Fairy Lane, they catch sight of the procession. Eli sees the face in the coffin is his own. When he gets home, Eli’s missus refuses to believe he saw a fairy funeral, thinking instead that Thwaites’s ale will be death of him. A month later he is dead. In this version it is uncertain whether he falls from a haystack or takes his own life (2).

Fairy Funeral 2

Current map, from Mario Maps, route marked in red

Whilst the characters, background and location change, the core myth- a young man sees the double of his corpse borne by a fairy funeral procession and dies within a month- remains the same.

St Mary's Church, PenworthamThe legend can be seen as rooted in the funeral traditions of the township. The earliest known burial at St Mary’s Church is a 12th century crusader. Although there are no more gravestones until 1682, recent excavations uncovered a Rawstorne family crypt and large number of unnamed bodies whose graves had been built over during an extension of the church. Local historian David Hunt believes everybody who lived in Penwortham would have been buried at St Mary’s and suspects many of the uncovered bodies were victims of the 1631 plague (3). The graveyard was expanded greatly during the 18th century and as plaques for cremations exist well into the 21st century, I assume it is still in use.

Stone Cross, Church AvenueThe name Church Avenue is suggestive of a processional route. Half way along is a stone cross, replacing a more ancient pedestal (on the map below), which may have been a marker. South of Church Avenue is the site of St Mary’s Well, which was attributed healing powers but dried up at the end of the 19th century before being built over by the A59. Leading to the well from Middleforth was a pilgrim’s path which may also have been part of the route.

Processional Route

1850’s map, from Mario Maps, route marked in red

The position of the current War Memorial suggests the route has continuing connections with ancestral remembrance.

Penwortham War Memorial

I suspect the reason the location of the legend changed was due to houses being built along Church Avenue in the early part of the 20th century. A secular perspective might assume people stopped associating the well lit avenue and its modern housing with the spectral procession, which in the original version travelled along a dark, tree lined mud road. Contrastingly, those who believe in fairies might argue that when the road and houses were built the fairies were either forced to move or made a decision to hold their funerals elsewhere.

Church Avenue

Anybody who has visited Fairy Lane will know it is an enchanted place. Ash and sycamore are decked with ivy and the ground is thick with moss and rich with fern and hart’s tongue. Every spring the woodland is carpeted with wild garlic and bluebells. The trees lining the lane are gnarled and fay and it’s easy to see why it might be associated with fairies, or why the fairies might have chosen it is an alternative location for their processions.

Faery Lane, Spring

~

The origin of Penwortham Fairy Funeral can be partially derived from the landscape and local funeral traditions. However this does not explain why the men saw fairies, as opposed to ghosts or other spectres, or the portentous aspect of the legend. Locating it within the context of British folklore has helped me gain a better understanding.

Prior to Saxon settlement, the inhabitants were part of a culture who spoke Cumbric, a British language close to the Welsh Cymric (4). This is shown in the etymology of ‘Penwortham’. According to Alan Crosby the ‘Pen’ element is a British word meaning ‘prominent headland.’ ‘Worth’ is Old English and means ‘enclosed settlement’. ‘Ham’ is Old English for ‘land within the bend of a river’ (5). An older spelling of Penwortham found in the Domesday Book is ‘Peneverdant.’ Rev. Thornber says ‘the old name of Penwortham is of British origin, thus – Peneverdant is 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.’ (6) East of Penwortham is Walton-le-dale. Walton is Old English for ‘the settlement of the Welsh’ (ie. native Britons).

Paul Devereux says that associations between fairies and funeral processions are common in Welsh mythology. He cites Edmund Jones ‘It was said of Welsh fairies “very often they appeared in the form of Funeral before the death of many persons, with a Bier, and a Black Cloth, in the midst of a company, about it, on every side, before and after it”… it was “past all dispute that they infallibly foreknew the time of Men’s death.”’ (7)

The term ‘fairy’ derives from the Latin ‘fatum,’ which means fate. Their Welsh name is ‘the Tylwyth Teg,’ the fair tribe or family (8). Implicit are physical qualities and a capacity to deal in ‘fairness.’ Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire and other collections of British folklore which depict people’s interactions with fairies, be they helpful sprites or malevolent boggarts, show the survival of a belief they play an active role in the determination of human fate.

In Burnley in Lancashire there is a similar legend. Captain Robert Parker of Extwistle Hall is walking home from a Jacobite meeting. He hides and by moonlight sees his name etched in brass on the coffin. He takes this as a warning not to support the Jacobites and backs out of the 1715 uprising (9) thus escaping imprisonment. However in 1717 he and two of his daughters are seriously injured in an accident in the hall involving gun powder. Parker dies from his injuries a month later (10).

Other fairy funeral legends include the following: In Gwent a man witnesses a fairy funeral procession approaching down a mountain toward ‘Abergeeg, or Lanithel church.’ He hides behind a wall and as the funeral passes steals a black veil from the bier, which he finds to be made of an ‘exceeding fine Stuff… very light’ (11). In Cornwall a man witnesses the funeral of a fairy queen. As the fairies bury her their shriek of lament is so alarming he joins in. Hearing his voice the fairies depart in panic, piercing him with sharp instruments as they fly away (12). The London based poet William Blake also claims to have witnessed a fairy funeral (13).

Although the consequences of witnessing these funerals are not as dire or fortuitous as the Lancashire cases it is clear the fairies are seen as real and that interacting with them has a real effect on human lives. The man from Gwent steals an actual cloth. The Cornish man is physically injured. Whilst Blake is not harmed he claims to have died several times during his lifetime and his poetry certainly displays the visionary quality of Faery.

Whilst our secular worldview attempts to eliminate beliefs unproved by reason or science they continue to be evidenced by arts and folklore and in personal experiences with the fairy races themselves. Penwortham Fairy Funeral is only one example of relations between humanity and Faery. I wonder whether there as many stories as there are incidences of contact with fairies?

Fairy Lane, Spring 2014

(1) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39712/39712-h/39712-h.htm#THE_FAIRY_FUNERAL
(2) http://everything2.com/title/The+Fairy+Funeral
(3) http://www.srtt.co.uk/2012/12/the-archaeology-of-penwortham-a-talk-by-david-hunt-2/
(4) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire,’ ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape (2010), p96
(5) Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past (1988), p14
(6) Rev. W. Thornber, ‘The Castle Hill of Penwortham,’ Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 1856/7, p66
(7) Paul Devereux, Spirit Roads (2003), p135
(8) T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore (1930), p51
(9)http://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/lookingback/8452575.Bag_a_boggart__but_don___t_give_it_gifts_/?ref=rss
(10) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire,’ ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape (2010), p97
(11) http://www.blaenau-gwent.gov.uk/8037.asp
(12) http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/efft/efft22.htm
(13) Katherine Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (2002), p197

Castle Hill

Castle Hill, motteSegregated by the howling by-pass and enclosed within a shroud of trees Castle Hill is a well kept secret unknown to most of Penwortham’s residents. Yet this hidden headland puts the ‘pen’ in Penwortham, or Peneverdant- ‘the green hill on the water’. It is the place where the history of the township began.

Occupation of the area dates to the Neolithic Period. The construction of Preston Docks in the late nineteenth century unearthed a collection of human skulls dating from 4000BC to 800BC, the bones of auroch and red deer, a bronze age spearhead, remnants of a brushwood platform and pair of dug out canoes indicating the existence of a dwelling akin to Glastonbury Lake Village inhabited by the Setantii tribe. Following from the notion that churches are built on pagan sacred sites it is possible St Mary’s church (which is on the summit) replaced a burial mound and / or stone circle.

The sacred nature of the hill is shown by three recorded holy wells. The best known is St Mary’s Well, which was located at the hill’s foot. It was attributed healing properties and was an important sight of pilgrimage. Since drying up its has sadly been covered over by the by-pass. This well was of such importance local people walked a mile to fetch water from it, following the pilgrim’s path. St Anne’s well was located to the west of the church. A well within the church was recently discovered to contain a body inhumed with three skulls which might serve an apotraic function.

A ballista ball and nearby industrial site supplemented by the tale of a ghostly troupe of centurions suggest Roman occupation. The castle mound and its twin at Tulketh were built by Saxons to hold off the Vikings who buried the infamous Cuerdale Horde. When the Normans invaded they rebuilt the castle and Peneverdant served as administrative centre to the Barony of Bussel. The hill was also the site of Penwortham Priory and residence of some scurrilous monks.

Since then St Mary’s church has governed the parish. Whilst the earliest known grave is of a 12th C crusader, the graveyard has served as a burial place for Penwortham’s people since the sixteenth century. The war memorial on the south bank resonates deeply with its association with ancestral remembrance.

One of its darkest legends concerns a fairy funeral. Two men returning home come upon a procession of little men clad in black, wearing red caps and bearing a coffin. One of them dares to look within and sees his miniature doppelganger dead and cold. When the fairies begin the burial he tries to stop it by grasping their leader and the party vanishes. Driven mad by the experience he topples from a haystack to his untimely end.

The path running through Church Wood beside the hill is known as Fairy Lane. In spring it is covered by bluebells and ransoms. In summer the blackbird song never ends. In autumn winds crash, leaves fall and the by-pass roars. Through winter’s depth ivy keeps the wood alive, the leaning yew holds vigil and for a blessed moment there is silence.

Every visit to this magical place, standing between humanity and nature, the dead and the living reminds me of those unseen bonds which might otherwise remain unacknowledged as the old green hill.

* First published in The Druid Network Newsletter (Samhain 2013)

Awenydd

I.
As the longest night looses
darkest claws I walk amongst shadows
at dawn where moonlight floods
through the arms of trees
and a solitary lamppost lights the vale.

Lamppost, Greencroft ValleyII.
River-trees stand stark and tall,
consistent in her mind’s
unravelling of currents and tides,
cormorants and gulls,
a ragged heron.

RibbleIII.
The host’s roar to a lullaby
quells as moon leads dawn
over chiming hills to be swallowed
by cloud as the hunt returns
to graveyard and mound.

Moon over Castle HillIV.
My lord of the fay
makes his presence known.
He speaks to the mist within my bones
like the lych gate unfastening,
awenydd– my magic word.

Lych gate, St Mary's ChurchV.
The spirit paths are mine
to walk for an evanescent pulse
of dawn. Time stands still
from vale to hill and the stream
sings: awenydd, awenydd.

Fish House Brook

Honouring Gwyn ap Nudd

Glastonbury Tor, January 2013On the Winter Solstice a post for Winter’s King.

Samhain has passed. We’re in the dead season. The wild hunt rides the passageways of time and spirit paths lie open. Communities gather and ancestors draw close. Here I feel called to honour Gwyn ap Nudd by telling the story of how he became my muse and patron and made my life whole.

My first meeting with Gwyn took place at the nadir of a crisis. At the end of August 2012 I reached a point of conflict between my spiritual path and ambition to become a professional writer. After two years work completing a fantasy novel I realised its world was too complex and the language too heavy, it held little relevance or hope for a contemporary audience and was at odds with my developing relationship with the land and its myths.

His first appearance was at the head of a fairy procession at a local sacred site. Although I knew of the legend of the fairy funeral I didn’t think I’d encounter it directly nor did I suspect it would be led by a Welsh Fairy King. Yet Gwyn made his name and message clear. The myths of this land are real and he could help me access them. He challenged me to journey with him to the Otherworld, the condition of his guidance being that I lay aside my personal ambitions.

I spent several days considering- could I truly give up my ambition to become a professional writer? How would this change my life? How did I know I could trust him? What if I didn’t come back? Yet this experience, although it was confusing and terrifying felt more powerful and real than anything that had ever happened to me. I knew it was a once in a life time opportunity and I’d only get one chance. I returned to the fairy site and agreed.

Gwyn opened the gates to the past of this land and its myths. With his guidance I learnt how to ride the skies and ancestral pathways on my white mare, viewing the landscape’s lineaments from contemporary suburbia to medieval farmland, oak wood and peat bog to tundra and the age of ice. I met with ancestral people, the ghosts of trees and stampeding aurochs. I entered Faery and descended to Annwn.

Yet I still questioned what a deity associated with Wales and Glastonbury was doing in Lancashire. Reading his myths I realised two of Gwyn’s main stories- the abduction of Creiddylad and Arthur’s slaying of Orddu take place in the North. In the conversation with Gwyddno Garanhir, which depicts his role gathering the souls of the battle dead Gwyn says:

‘I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the North;
I am alive, they in their graves!
I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain,
From the East to the South
I am alive, they in death!’

Gwyn is not only a king of Annwn and the fairies but a traveller between the worlds and across the landscape of Britain, maintaining the bonds between nature and humanity, the living and the dead. As a ruler and guide of this isle’s ancestral people his turning up at the head of a local fairy procession was not out of place.

Reassessing my past experiences I realised this wasn’t the first time I’d felt his influence. At Glastonbury festival in my late teens the veil had been lifted to reveal a vision of the Otherworld, a place I now recognise as Gwynfyd, which was coupled with a feeling of truth and ecstatic unity. Thirteen years later he had finally made his presence known, leading me from the cycle of aspiration, failure and frustration caused by my ambition to be a writer back to this magical unison with the land and its myths. He had made my life whole. In January I returned to Glastonbury and made my vow to him at the White Spring.

Since then my relationship with Gwyn has been a constant source of support and inspiration. Whilst the only piece of literature I know of that might link him with the Bardic Tradition is a reference in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ to the Chief of Annwn possessing a cauldron warmed by the breath of nine maidens, I see him as a god of primal poetry- the wild Awen that thunders like the hunt through space and time and exists in the magic of nature, the songs of the fay and wisdom of the ancestors.

With his guidance I have discovered ways of connecting more deeply with the land and its spirits, its known myths and some unknown ones (a couple of which correspond with factual evidence!). In return I strive to communicate what I have learnt through written and spoken words to maintain the bonds between nature and humanity, this world and the Otherworlds.

And so, as we gather in the dead season, the wild hunt rides and spirit paths lie open I choose this time to tell this story to thank and honour Gwyn ap Nudd.

Calling

Before my calling I slept in a glass coffin.
No-one knew if I was live or dead until
I raised my head. And still they are pondering.

Whilst I slept I watched processions
of black clad men carrying coffins,
who march here still putting time
to death, brief as dragonflies.

Their echo beats loud. In woodlands
at March I search for a heartbeat, whilst
mad winds whirl the winter skies overhead.

Roads steal sound. Pylons warp every sense.
Yet when I look the past in the eye it looks back.
They need us now as much as we need them
and the people of the future need us again.

For live or dead there is no rest, no place
to hide nor coffins left, only time processing
through both worlds to a fathomless end.

The King of Faery

In woodland damp, a shady dark divine
On aged slope the creeping ivy climbs.
Caressing thorn and dressing ash with vine
A poison maid spreading her locks sublime
Drapes kingdom fair with wanton waxen shine.
The deep earth’s lawless vagabond of joy
Cords heart shaped leaf where eldritch magic lives,
Ascends, protects the glamorous abode
Of fair folk ancient as the darkness of the wood.

Rooted fast at the foot of hallowed hill
In somber silence stands a leaning yew
Ghosts and needles shadowing its boughs
Whispers hanging sorrowful and true,
Of pageant stately passing at full moon.
Yew tree hides the underworld’s feared gateway
Beneath the haunted watching of its roots.
The wise and dead or reckless seek entry
Imploring the illustrious King of Faery.

~

His spectral shine shimmers white as moonlight
His hair floats fair about his phantom limbs
His warrior attire is black as night.
The eyes of the hunter of souls are grim
As the howl of his hounds on Annwn’s winds.
His dread black steed is a beast of the marsh
Dripping like the sea, his whinnying swims
Like a wetland dobbie bridging the worlds
And hurtling his way across the oak covered swamp.

The King’s pale face is black with wrath
For an eldritch dream killed by disbelief.
Souls who crossed to Annwn to be reborn
Stagnate in the gloom of apathy’s reign.
Through a mist of twilight doomed rides the King.
He travels the path of the Ribble’s old course
From the heart of the hill the death knell rings.
Decked in somber garments the fair folk march
Calling souls to the underworld with funeral spells.