Far away, in the top left-hand corner of Wales…
As that crazy little thing called Mabon encroaches, I surely have to apologise for getting a little ‘What-I-Did-On-Me-Holidays’, but a honeymoon with my beloved in the folklore-steeped hills of Snowdonia, coinciding with the long-gestated second volume of TALES OF BRITAIN ON AUDIBLE, has meant a busy autumnal equinox for Brother Bernard…
18 more stories from the book, into your lugholes in noise form – or rather, one tale not even in the book, the very first folktale I ever re-told, ROBIN’S ARROW, from my wum, Ludlow.
As I said before, we’re not entirely sure why Audible have seen fit to stash them away in ‘Politics and Social Science’, I mean, stories are of course sociologically essential, but the strict categorisation – to Audible, ‘Folklore’ is entirely a sub-division of Children’s publishing – seems somewhat self-defeating for any release which happily squats over a plethora of genres. This collection was originally intended as a Spring/Summer release, and the exciting industry going on with recording audio of some other books – plus Audible’s Jarndycian pace – means that another volume in 2021 seems sadly unlikely, but hopefully in 2022 we can really aim at and actually hit the springtime. We can only keep everything crossable crossed that these new oral stories are proper enjoyed by those who do find them.
Track 3 – VENGEANCE WILL COME – was just one of at least five Welsh folktales to bubble up from the lands we set off north to visit for the last weekend of the summer. Honeymooning in a suitably crumbly country house B&B up a scarily steep and winding remote pathway, we found that my tourist tips created for the book years ago – and rarely, I am ashamed to admit, based on personal experience – did at least prove bang on the nail in one respect: in Snowdonia, there are stories in every direction. Thanks largely to The Mabinogion, of course, although the most obvious story within a short walk of our Beddgelert B&B was of course a more recent confection. A crafty innkeeper’s ruse or not, it was touching to stand (in the rain, naturally) in the exact same spot by Poor Old Gelert’s grave as I had in a family photo taken on holiday some hot summer in the mid-1980s…
Nearby also squatted the round hill of Dinas Emrys, the stage set for Merlin & The Dragons, a story I must have told more than any other, probably one of the most central yarns in the whole of British mythology. On that damp Saturday, however, we never dared try to scale the hill (let alone the mountains looming over it), as we had to get out to the furthest edge of the North-West without actually reaching the Isle of Mona, Carmarthen – Her for an afternoon of hilly horsey-riding, Him to get to grips with the toxic brew which was the legend of Blodeuwedd. Yes, doesn’t everyone rewrite ancient folktales on their honeymoons?
The book’s suggestion that you ‘sample the tributes’ to Merlin in his supposed hometown, Caermarthen, proved a bit fishy on delayed personal experience, I saw not so much as a ‘Merlin’s Arcade’ or ‘Myrddin Arms’ – but then Blodeuwedd is a very different story to that mad old druid’s.
No matter how you slice it, the Mabinogion’s story of the ‘hero’ Lleu Llaw Gyffes and the wife he had crafted bespoke out of flowers, is as toxic as Britney Spears eating a three-eyed fish in a lead mine. And generations of Welsh story lovers have seen Lleu as the hero? Prince of Gwynedd or not, the behaviour of him and his dodgy wizard uncles – Gwydion the Druid especially – put me in mind of Rhys Ifans flick Twin Town, these grubby wastrels holed up in some estate sucking on strange mushrooms and the like. You can’t help but have all sympathy for Blodeuwedd when she finally falls in love for herself, at last.
But it’s very rare to have the luxury of telling a story bang in the place where ‘it happened’, and so you could blow me every which way when a spot of research revealed that the Leche Gronw (G or no G) was sited in Blaenau Festiniog, near a farm called Bryn Saeth, or Hill of the Arrow, and all-but slap-bang in the middle of our route home to Bath. That is how I came to be traipsing up the foothills of a steep hill called Bryn Cyfergyr early on a Sunday morning, lost.
Despite having its own Wikipedia page, the actual way to get to the stone was left entirely up to the poor witless visitor to work out on limited phone coverage, with not so much as a ‘There’s Some Stone Round The Corner’ sign. The house above was called ‘Llech Gronw’, but knocks on the door yielded nothing.
Only my far more clever other half’s detective work finally saw us inching around the perimeter of the field opposite the lower farm, to find a tiny corner where the stone stood, shielded by rusted iron, with not a word of identification, let alone context. I wonder which hill Lleu threw his spear from, or whether he flaked out and just stood there in the field – or okay, somewhere up above, as the stone was allegedly fished out of the stream sometime in the 1930s…
The question is, will we look back and be glad that we had to struggle to find this relic of British mythology? The way so many sacred story sites just subsist, with little or no pride shown in their existence, instinctively irks me to a quite peppery degree, if I had the power I couldn’t resist creating lasting memorials for any lore-locked location near me. If the argument is that the locals don’t wish to be bothered by tourists, surely a clear map and directions, with explanations, would be the best way to avoid being knocked-up by some damp bloke in a green cape on a Sunday morning. But I’m glad we (she) found it.
Next on the way home of course, came Bala – home of Vengeance Will Come, another Top Five story through all our live shows. Also the birthplace of Taliesin, of course, I have to admit that no other real-life site of a narrative I have unfolded quite hit me in the solar plexus as the area on the north coast of Wales’ biggest lake, Llech Tegid, once the home of the foul Tegid Foel.
Somehow seeing the marshy lands at the edge of the water, where the ‘new town’ of Bala stood, and thinking of Ilyd the Harpist following that strange green bird, clambering up into the hills and escaping those floods, gave me a spooky sensation of seeing a place I had conjured up in story so many times, there right before my eyes.
This feeling was helped along by finally being able to touch the wonderful Mabinogion carvings at the nearby campsite Bala Lake . I had been cheeky enough to use some photos of Simon O’Rourke‘s carvings in previous Tales of Britain blogs, but despite some sad erosion at the bottom, his recreations of Taliesin, Tegid Foel, Ceridwen and, yes, Blodeuwedd, really have to be visited in person to be appreciated.
… Which of course goes for so many other Tales of Britain sites unvisited, and which we live to try and remedy, and tick off the list. Not that the story of Arthur’s Stone (or rather, Aslan’s Altar, as there are a gazillion Arthur’s Stones, but only this one apparently inspired CS Lewis) is planned to be one of them – King Arthur fights giant, wins, giant elbow marks are the proof – but as it’s in my native border lands, it was a sweet leg-stretcher for the long journey home, with my beloved other half holding the reins.
Happy mists and mellow fruitfulness to you all – enjoy the Tales!