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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Christmas about to come – the best of Pembrokeshire in the run up to Christmas 2016

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img_20161122_134038.jpgThere are ghosts in all we do at Christmas; memories of memories tied up in red ribbon and smelling of cinnamon and oranges.

I love that here in Pembrokeshire the rolly polly ghost of Christmas past is still around, laughing his great rolling laugh, and I find him every year in the familiar places and long running county traditions, of shopping and eating, and making ready for Advent.

Favourite Pembrokeshire shops at Christmas

Vincent Davies Department Store, Haverfordwest

img_20161123_130056-01.jpegVincent Davies, the department store on the outskirts of Haverfordwest, has been a favourite of our family for generations. Our grandparents, along with all the old county families, bought their furniture there. As young parents we bought from the garden centre the baby versions of the plants that are now taking over our gardens and our children bought their first hamsters and gerbils there.

Every decade the store reinvents itself, remaining relevant, and its current incarnation is a great big grotto of things you’d just love to buy and my Mum and I regularly spend many a happy hour burrowing through its thoughtfully chosen goodies. We browse the china and buy yet more baking tins because you can never have too many. We wonder if we can fit one more piece of pretty furniture or well stuffed cushion into our homes, before spending an hour sampling the scented candles, getting pickier and pickier by the minute – soy wax, wooden wick for crackle, depth of scent, christmassyness – the perfect choice takes ages but it’s fun, it’s part of the choosing the best for Yule.

From a pile of fat fabric robins at the entrance (I’m sure I saw the same robins in Liberty of London two years ago), all the way past the glittery fripperies for Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties and onto a vast array of decorations and Santa’s grotto, the store is at its best at Christmas.

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Ever quick to spot a trend – Hygge is huge! – this year they have beautiful Scandi style decorations alongside the more usual glass baubles – delicate birch bark Christmas trees with curled fronds, plain wooden reindeer with natural grain and little glitter and even a full size tree of frosted twigs.
It is impossible to visit without buying something, even something small, that will become another little Christmas ghost to add to the host in the years to come.

Vincent Davies’s website can be found here – Vincent Davies Christmas Website and their Facebook page is here –
Vincent Davies on Facebook

The George’s, Market Street, Haverfordwest

At some point during the run up to Christmas one of the family will suggest lunch at The George’s in Haverfordwest, at the top of the town, amongst the eclectic shops of Market Street. This quirky cafe bar and restaurant with shop which exemplifies the word emporium, all various levels and nooks, is another family tradition. Rich with essential oils, glowing in the light of salt lamps, full of healthy goodies, adorable little bronzes, hand crafted mirrors and a plethora of organic products there is so much to discover here.

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We like to think we discovered it first, decades ago, when my daughter was little, and fair trade and ethically sourced were strange sounding words nobody really understood. We used to go there and share plates of delicious pate and we having been eating their crab bake for (eek) nearly thirty years.

Every year they have a winter theme and this year it’s silver and white and based around the stone selenite which is supposed to bring good fortune, truth, integrity, forgiveness, achievement & success, which is a lot to ask of a mineral but definitely welcome if it can manage it!

Find The George’s on Facebook here – Facebook Page

Upcoming Christmas Events in Pembrokeshire 2016
Castell Henllys – A Christmas Fayre

11:00 until 16:00 27 November 2016

The Iron Age settlement offers an interesting venue for a Christmas Fayre – there will be stalls selling local crafts for that special gift, Santa and one of his elves in the grotto, mince pies with mulled wine and carol singers. There will be activities to entertain the children whilst adults shop!

Castell Henllys Iron Age Settlement Events

Pembroke Castle Christmas Market 2016

Pembroke Castle’s Christmas Market this year will be running between Friday 25th and Sunday 27th November.

The Christmas Market is a community event with free admission to all visitors. The Castle will overflowing with Christmas cheer, the castle walls and towers will be lit up in bright colours, there will be music and entertainment, and Santa’s Grotto in Western Hall.

They ask the question on their website – Where else will you see Santa abseil down an 80ft keep? Where indeed!

Pembroke Castle Christmas Market

Fishguard Christmas Festival

6th December 2016

In Fishguard the energetic and inspiring Seasonal Events Team – a group of people addicted to festivals – have this year arranged a Christmas Festival which will include, on the 6th December 2016, a chance to late night shop in the wonderful Market in the town hall which will be full of local arts, crafts and produce, music and activities. Always a great atmosphere.

Fishguard Christmas Festival Facebook Page

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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.

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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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