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Welsh Winter Legends – When the WIld Hunt rides

This is our winter deep. The dark time before the turn of the tide, when despite our warm homes and insulated lives we feel the old times, when the fear was real and the battle with the cold was daily fought.

img_20161203_122013.jpgThese are our nights of shiversome stories told by firelight flicker, before we creep away to hide in bed and bar the fear with feather soft quilt and a warm layer of milky chocolate to calm our nervous guts.

The year draws on, the wild hunt rides the old roads that run beside us and the unseen doors open to allow the otherworld to draw close.

I hear my old uncle, thin as whittled bone then, long dead and gone now, mutter in the December cold as he hunches against the gale from the east and hurries home from evening mass, “When the winter winds blow and the Yule fires are lit, it is best to be indoors.”

Those who find themselves about during the December nights, on narrow lanes that pass through skeleton groves, listen hard, thinking they hear something moving in the margins. Is it the wind that causes the creak and grind of the topmost branches? What foot cracks the fallen branch with icy snap? Whose breath, cold and wet and white, condenses in the copse? Those who walk the winter ways, they had best know that they are good men because the Wild Hunt is riding and it will hound bad men to the ends of the earth.

The Wild Hunt rides through folklore all across the northern hemisphere, in lands where the night is long and deadly cold. From Scandinavia to southern Spain, from Germany to Italy, by different names it thunders across the winter landscapes of our fears. The Cortejo de Gente de Muerte (“deadly retinue”) rides in Extremadura, in France it is Mesnée d’Hellequin. Down in Cornwall the Devil’s Dandy Dogs make up the hunt and here in Wales, the leader of the Wild Hunt is Gwynn ap Nudd.

Lord of the Dead“, Gwynn ap Nudd, dark of face, who holds back all the devils in hell with his pack of white hounds with blood-red ears, the Cŵn Annwn. The Welsh name for the Otherworld is Annwn, it is “The Court of Carousal” or “The Court of Intoxication”, “Castle-on-High”, or “Caer Vandwy”. We Welsh have a hundred names for the other side of here because it feels so close.

The 14th century bard, Dafydd ap Gwilym writes of Gwynn in a number of his works, suggesting that the character was well known and understood in Wales during the Middle Ages. In Y Dylluan, he describes the owl as the “fowl of Gwyn ap Nudd”, and in Y Niwl, he calls Gwynn the “trickster of men with his dark face” and his talaith (family or tribe) are called the talaith y gwynt, “the nation of the wind.”

Part pagan, with just a nod to Christian, our old tales twist in the telling down the centuries. In the fourteenth century those careful to cover their bases would invoke Gwynn’s name before entering wooded areas, proclaiming: “to the king of Spirits, and to his queen–Gwyn ap Nudd, you who are yonder in the forest, for love of your mate, permit us to enter your dwelling.”

He is a strange figure in folklore, Gwyn, like many gods and demi gods associated with the otherworld, be it fairy or afterlife, his character is dimorphic. He has honour but is terrible in anger, wreaks havoc for revenge and fights for forbidden love. He guides the souls of fallen warriors to a heaven of apple trees and heather beer and yet he torments the living with his phantasmagorical hunt.

The Wild Hunt is likely a construct used by early Christianity to keep the easily swayed from slip sliding back into pagan ways. It is an old old story from the turning of the year, when the wild geese migrating overhead sounded like hounds baying beyond the clouds. It has been spun into a threat to keep the pious at the home heart and to godly ways during the traditional Yuletide celebrations. It taps into ancient fears passed down in the blood and it rises in those winter nights when our mortality is all too apparent.

Those who are routinely abroad in these winter nights must be strong of spirit, sure of their goodness or used to the fear, a familiar companion. As an old railway man I used to know would say, before he made his way along the dark iron tracks to his lonely signal box, “I’ve been living in the woods too long to be frightened of the owls.”

This is our Yule. We feel the year turn. Orion bestrides the night sky and Sirius, the dog star, gleams in the midnight blue and amongst the frost rimed leaf litter Gwyn ap Nudd, leader of the Wild Hunt, holds his horse in check and waits to lets his hounds catch the scent.

I hear the hoof beats on the old lane beside the house…



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Legends in the land – Drovers’ roads and forgotten woodland

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These frosty November mornings are wonderful, the dogs are excited by the spring step cold crunch of the grass and our woods are full of ice cauled leaves that chime as they fall. On the old drovers’ road beside the house the leaf litter is deep for kicking and underneath the iron hard ground is pitted with fox track, badger tread and the scratches of squirrels. The dogs are in scent heaven when my daughter and I take them for their morning walk down to our woods.

My woods are a sharp triangle of folklore and myth caught between old walls and guarded by a grey menhir with a hole through it. This patch of land came with the old slate works we built the house on. A little leftover from an old title deed so we thought at the time. A crumpled corner of a piece of field cut away when the railway came through. But it isn’t. It was always thus, so it seems. On the old maps, from the time before the railway came, before they threw iron across the land, it was there. Complete and of itself. Alongside the drovers’ road. And I wonder, when I look at it, what was it? Why was it?

An oak tree in its midst, a writhe of old trees on its edges, a gateway now a gap, a trenched corner with raised platform under a tripping tangle of briars, hiding its truth.

what-emma-sees-01.jpeg.jpgEvery now and then we clear a section of blackthorn scrub to create sunlight clearings and we ponder it. Was there a smithy here? Was this a waypoint for the drovers’? The first stop after the slow first day on the road, with the cattle still lowing for their home fields whilst the leather booted pigs grunt in the grass.

I stand in the drovers’ road, looking down its clear straight avenue and beside me my patch of land hides its secrets and whispers to the old tales, the old worlds, before iron ruled the world.

I think I hear the ring of a smithy in the morning air, all bell like chime. Did they shoe the cattle here; meld the half-moon cws to their cloven hooves before they took the wider, harder road to the east, to the markets in the towns?

The Drover’s Roads of Pembrokeshire

Our drovers’ road is a remnant of an ancient network. Until the railways came in the late 19th century the drovers’ roads were active arteries, herding the cattle, sheep, geese and turkeys to markets in the major cities and as a sideline dealing in news, carrying money from relative to relative, ferrying legal documents and generally ensuring commerce on a large scale functioned across the land.

Cattle in their droves were shod with half-moon iron shoes to protect their hooves on the long journey whilst pigs on the move wore leather boots, and geese had their feet tarred to endure the miles.

The legendary Welsh Black cattle – the black gold from the Welsh hills – who have roamed this countryside since pre-Roman times, were a valuable part of the drovers’ trading and such an integral part of the Welsh economy that in 1799 one drover, David Jones, founded what came to be known as the Welsh Black Ox Bank. The Welsh Black Ox bank was bought up by Lloyds and the black horse that gallops across their advert replaced the Welsh Black Bull that the bank originally had on their notes. Maybe they should have kept the bull!

Lloyds Banking – tales-of-the-black-ox

Where the old roads run

lane1-01.jpegOur roads are old; the drovers followed the routes the romans cut and they followed the ways our Neolithic ancestors used, all the desire ways across the land. Our myths and legends are woven into the roads, old heroes pass on by. Arthur and his round table, questing for love or glory, women of flowers drifting in the summer green and queens on white horses, slipping between worlds in the search for a suitable king. In these short days after Samhein, when the low winter sun speeds the day and the nights are long and fearsome cold the legends come out to play on the old roads.

Down in the woods my dogs go hunting through the litter fall, every now and then they pause, freeze, scent the air for something I can’t sense. They are always alert here. Quivering with pause before the chase. Sensing a hunt going on just the other side of the now.

On winter nights when I take them out for their last walk they bark at nothing and in the clear cold sky Orion hunts the heavens and in the lane the ghosts of the drover’s sly clever dogs slink home alone and in the thinness of the icy night the Wild Hunt waits, maybe.

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sunrise from plumstone pembrokeshire

Plumstone sunrise – Winter walks in Pembrokeshire

plumstone mountain pembrokeshire in november

There is a supermoon aching in the sky, it makes the nights restless and full of strange dreams. As an antidote to the weird, and it has been a weird few weeks, we get up and get out early into the fresh Pembrokeshire air.

The last stars are still visible in a dark blue sky when we load sleepy but definitely up for it dogs into the car and drive the ten minutes to Plumstone mountain, just the other side of the Landsker line, between Hayscastle and the sea.

It’s not cold. This long lingering autumn has been unusually warm and sunny. In the unruly hedgerows of my garden confused campion are flowering and the blue rose has bloomed. Expecting to be burnt by frost it bravely budded and then burst open in a heady rush of saturated scent. It has been a strange but welcome easy entry into winter.

At Plumstone, a gentle sweep of a hill overlooking the coast towards Newgale and inland to the heart of Pembrokeshire, the dawn is hesitating, drawing a ring of light around the horizon but hiding the details of the landscape.

The buried pumping machinery of a covered reservoir is rumbling away next to the small car park and amongst the peaty puddles a line of rusting manholes cut into the black soil bounce the bass around.

A short, wide track leads to the summit.

I walk ahead whilst Nick wrangles the dogs that are insistent on investigating every new scent.

The grass is crew cut at the summit. The rocky outcrop that crowns the hill is still dark but when I stand on the rounded remains of an old tumulus and look to the east the sky is on fire.

sunrise from plumstone pembrokeshire

In Richard Fenton’s ‘Tour through Pembrokeshire’ (1811) Plumstone is described as three rocking stones and a cromlech “in the midst of this convulsed chaos.” The land must have been wilder then, either that or I have seen more convulsed geology in my travels. Still, Plumstone feels deep, all black peat ground, clear shallow pools and a perfect view point over coast, mountains and particularly the wide open moor.

From the jumble of pre-Cambrian rocks at the top, cold as ice ages, I watch the dawn slide across the moor below. Energised by the sunrise a small herd of wild ponies breaks into a canter, their shadows stretching out across the furze and heather. I wonder what ghosts ride them.

view of moor from plumstone mountain pembrokeshire

As Richard Fenton remarked, this is “the scene perhaps of many a bloody conflict; and from the numerous remains, undoubtedly of druidical superstition; here I say we must have expected to have found tumuli of every description, whether we consider them sepulchres of such as fell in battle, or of those whose rank and merits entitled them to the eminent distinction of such memorials in hallowed ground.”

He was ever in search of the mystical, Richard Fenton, fond of grubbing in cromlechs and casually desecrating graves. Born in St David’s, long time resident in London, buried in the pleasant valley of Manorowen near Fishguard he was a man who despite a strong sense of humour (he wrote an anonymous comedic work on his life as a barrister) searched for the connection to the ancient in the landscape. He writes about examining the cromlechs at Plumstone, ferreting in what he takes to be an old tomb, finding only cremated remains, ashes grown dank and damp from a long time drowned.

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I watch the ponies disappear into the sunrise. The rocks I lean against are golden now and amongst the blue tone curves of the Preseli hills I can see the ridge of Foel Cwm Cerwyn, where, so they say, Arthur Pendragon’s men ranged in battle order against the Twrch, a magical boar, and lost their lives to be buried under the tooth sharp crags of Cerrigmarchogion.

dawn on plumstone rocks pembrokeshire in November

The legends reach out to touch the now. I remember that the old tales tell that Arthur came ashore near here – “We will run down the Twrch and his brood,” said Arthur grimly. “I will not waver until I have put to death the Twrch and honoured my promise to my kinsman Culhwch.” And he lost no time in pursuing the beast in his ship, Prydwen.

Does Prydwen ride at anchor at Porthclais this bright winter morning? Will Arthur’s men gallop across this moor on their hardy ponies? Is that the squeal of a pig I hear? And amongst the scent of cold wet grass and dew flick is that the hot fleck foam and stink of the Twrch passing in the dawn?

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Hardly, but it easy to feel it, the vibration of the legends in the land.

I photograph the sunrise, the rocks and the pools, the long shadows and the tiny details the shifting spectrum of light draws out of scrub, thorn and winter dry stalks. Then we go home, to a warm house and a good breakfast and leave the ghosts heroically galloping endlessly across Plumstone moor towards the mountains and Richard Fenton watching on amidst the old stone burial markers.

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