Communion Of Dreams


Three weeks in Wales, Part 9: castles, churches, and the Green Desert.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8.

We were going to head north, to meet up with another of Martha’s friends from the online Welsh language community. But we decided to explore a bit along the way. Exploring, we discovered a castle we hadn’t visited previously: Cilgerran.

Here’s the nice image/intro discription from CADW:

This beautifully located castle has a romantic air.
The coracle, a one-person boat native to these parts, has a history dating back thousands of years. Cilgerran Castle, which overlooks the Teifi, a river favoured by the peculiar vessel, isn’t doing too badly either. Almost 800 years young and counting.Take the wall-walk to truly appreciate why it was built here. Stunning location. Perfect for stunning attackers. The Normans first saw the potential and established an early ‘ringwork’ castle here, but the imposing masonry castle we see today was probably the work of William Marshal, earl of Pembroke.

It really is an impressive structure, and we enjoyed poking around it for a good while.

Main gate.

 

Inner ward.

Not a strawman I’d care to fight.

 

The walls were surprisingly thick — about 10′. Which is about half again what you normally see in castles of this age.

Definitely glad that we stopped to check it out.

Martha’s friend Huw lives outside Aberystwyth, and we took a room at the Black Lion pub in nearby Pontrhydfendigaid. He met us there, and we went over to Strata Florida, another Cistercian abbey which played a very important role in Welsh history, and was a major center of learning. It also plays an important role in St Cybi’s Well, with one of the chapters titled with the name. Here’s a bit of that:

He led Darnell through the gateway, onto the smooth green lawn which once had been the floor of the abbey church. To the left and right were the foundations of the original walls, less than a half meter tall, and somewhat wider than that. Beyond those were the remains of the exterior walls of the north and south aisles. Looking down the long nave, and across to the far wall of the north transept, Darnell saw a small group of people before a large slate sign. From his previous visits, he knew that this was a marker dedicated to a famous Welsh medieval poet who was buried on the grounds.

This was familiar ground, ground he had walked before. And yet, for the first time he felt something different. It was an echo of that resonance he had felt at St David’s Cathedral, of the shimmering energy of Stonehenge. Something deep. Powerful. Old.

Whether the ground was so imbued with this strange … energy … before the monks had chosen this spot for their abbey, or whether the energy was the effect of hundreds of years of worship on the location, he didn’t know. But there was something there which touched him, which opened a door he had only recently come to realize even existed.

It really does have a special feel. See for yourself (first image is from Wikipedia):

Graves of princes and poets.

 

From Strata Florida, Huw took us up into Elenydd, the so-called ‘green desert of Wales’. It’s an upland plateau, a wild and largely empty place. And it is beautiful in its starkness, particularly with the clouds hanging less than 100′ above us:

Lovely.

Huw had one more treat in store for us that afternoon: the Church of Saint David at Llanddewi Brefi. While most of the current structure dates to the 19th century, the central tower is clearly 12th century:

The interior of the church:

But what is most impressive are the Ogham stones, probably dating back to the 6th century:

 

The next day the low-hanging clouds which had been threatening rain delivered on their threat. It was a good day for driving again in the Green Desert, with a visit to “the most remote chapel in all Wales”, Capel Soar y mynydd:

And while the chapel may be remote, they’re up with the times:

 

Jim Downey

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Three weeks in Wales, Part 8: before history.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7.

We spent the bulk of Sunday driving to Llandysul in SW Wales. There we’d made arrangements to stay with an online friend of Martha’s.

Monday we spent mostly in prehistoric Britain, starting with Castell Henllys. This is an iron age hillfort which has been partially reconstructed, using solid archeological research done on the site. Since the roundhouses have been rebuilt right on the original foundations, you get a real sense of what life in the village must have been like. You can see it, feel it, smell it. They’ve done a remarkable job in building the structures and constructing the everyday items which would have been inside them.

Typical traps between the defensive berms: sharp rocks, pot holes, mires.

 

Inside defensive berm.

 

 

What you see as you come through the defensive perimeter.

 

Nice to see how the thatch around the vent hole was replaced recently.

 

Common house and animal pen.

 

Entrance to the chieftain’s hut.

 

Interior roof support structure.

 

Simple loom.

 

Grindstone.

 

Firepit.

 

Cooking gear.

 

Decorative end of log seat.

Interior wall.

 

‘Bedroom.’

 

Interior decoration.

Pole lathe.

 

Storage/work shed.

 

Fish basket.

 

Roof detail.

 

Granary.

 

We decided to have lunch at a local pub, then I wanted to make another stop at Craig Rhosyfelin (from Part 3), to take some additional images for my own reference in working on St Cybi’s Well:

Approaching the point.

 

And from there we went exploring — driving off into an area we hadn’t been before, just looking to see what we might find on the map. And we wound up at Gors Fawr, a wonderful remote neolithic stone circle. With the clouds hanging low and covering the nearby mountain tops, you couldn’t ask for a more atmospheric scene:

The whole circle.

 

The ‘avenue stones.’

 

Lastly, on our way back to Llandysul, we stopped by the Hywel Dda Centre in Whitland. We had been to the Centre previously, but only when it wasn’t open. This time we had a chance to chat with a charming docent, who shared his enthusiasm for Welsh history. And of professional interest, we got to see the excellent facsimile copy of ‘Boston Manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda‘:

It was a delightful day.

Jim Downey



Three weeks in Wales, Part 5: water and old stone.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

“Water and old stone” pretty much sums up Wales, for me, I think. But I have an admittedly biased perspective.

We started the next morning with a trip to Pennant Melangell, a small pilgrimage church in the Tanat valley in north Wales. Here’s the preamble I use in the first chapter of St Cybi’s Well, which is titled ‘Pennant Melangell’:

Melangell was a female saint of the 7th century. According to tradition she came here from Ireland and lived as a hermit in the valley. One day Brochwel, Prince of Powys, was hunting and pursued a hare which took refuge under Melangell’s cloak. The Prince’s hounds fled, and he was moved by her courage and sanctity. He gave her the valley as a place of sanctuary, and Melangell became Abbess of a small religious community. After her death her memory continued to be honoured, and Pennant Melangell has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. Melangell remains the patron saint of hares.
– St Melangell’s Church website

It’s a wonderful little place.

Here’s the entrance to the churchyard, with the classic lych gate:

Interior of the church:

The 15th century rood screen.

 

Chancel, with the (reconstructed) 12th century shrine of St Melangell.

 

Detail under the shrine.

 

Inside the Apse.

 

Back of the tympanum, containing a plaster panel with The Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments, all in Welsh.

In the churchyard:

I love this place. Maybe it shows:

We got some lunch in the charming little town of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant (where parts of this favorite movie was shot), then went to visit Pistyll Rhaeadr, one of the “seven natural wonders of Wales.”  The waterfall is mentioned in Communion of Dreams, and one of the major chapters of St Cybi’s Well is titled ‘Pistyll Rhaeadr’. Here it is:

That’s almost 250′ tall.

 

My sister and her family before we climbed to the top.

 

Up on top.

 

Steve, getting some images of the falls, looking down.

I did the same:

Here’s a description of the top of the falls, taken from St Cybi’s Well:

As he came around past the rock outcrop, the sound from the falls increased. There was the distant rumble from the bottom of the first long drop, but closer now were the sounds of water scrambling over rock and root, gathering in the small pools at the top before the plunge. Darnell made his way to the last of these pools, near the edge of the cliff, and stood there, listening.

He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and relaxed, opening himself as he had tried to do at St Cybi’s and St Seiriol’s, allowing rather than reaching, feeling rather than thinking.

And he felt something. A whisper in his mind. A whisper as though someone were speaking his name. A whisper of invitation, to step through the wind and over the edge of the cliff, to come to freedom. It was a beckoning, a subtle and supple call to pass through to the other side.

This was the thinness Megan spoke of. He understood it now, at least a little.

Releasing the breath, he slowly opened his eyes, then knelt down to the pool in front of him. The silver-grey sky reflected in the pool had a new shimmer to it, an intensity he had not seen before. He reached out, as he had done before, and placed the palm of his hand against the surface of the water.

There was no slight electric thrill, but neither was there just the crisp coldness of a mountain stream. Rather, there was a vibrancy, almost a … depth … there, more than the few inches of water in the pool would suggest. And while the roar of the falls to his left called loudly, it was the trickle of water coming from his right which whispered to him. He stood, and followed it further up the mountain.

After hiking back down to the base of the falls, we enjoyed a snack in the little tea shop, then headed back to our cottage. The magic of the day continued, as we watched clouds form midway down the mountain:

The next day we decided to visit Caernarfon castle, the massive fortress in the north Wales town of the same name. This one:

Some of my images:

And from displays inside one of the main towers:

Time enjoying the castle was followed up with lunch on the castle square:

That afternoon, we went to St Cybi’s Well, itself:

The main bathing pool.

 

The well source, itself, behind the bathing pool.

 

“Author’s selfie.”

 

Jim Downey

 



Three weeks in Wales, Part 3: Under ancient skies.

Part 1. Part 2.

After a very nice breakfast at our B&B in Kidwelly, we decided to hit a couple of our favorite places as we worked our way north to Dolgellau, where we had a cottage for the next week.

First was the National Botanic Garden of Wales, home of the Great Glasshouse, where you can find the most amazing collection of Mediterranean plants from around the world:

We also checked out the butterfly house, the walled gardens, and the broadwalk water feature. We even visited with the guardian dragon:

From the Garden, we decided to backtrack a bit east, to one of my favorite Welsh castles, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons: Carreg Cennen.

I love the views of the surrounding countryside from the castle:

And of course, the interior of the castle ruins is also about as atmospheric as you could ask for:

From there we headed to Pembrokeshire, and one of the most iconic neolithic sites in Wales: Pentre Ifan. Here’s a brief passage from St Cybi’s Well describing the roads leading to this amazing site:

This was widely considered the most important megalithic site in the entire country, yet all it got was this simple sign on a country road smaller than just about any subdivision road in the US. It was frustrating, yet somehow also endearing, because it showed just how much the Welsh assumed that locals would know about the area … and how little interest outsiders would take.

And here’s the passage describing what the protagonist sees when he arrives there:

Darnell came to the ‘parking area’: an extra strip of asphalt, with room to park perhaps half a dozen cars along the road. There was a simple gravel path, a wooden gate, and a very small metal sign from CADW that said “Pentre Ifan.” Darnell pulled over and parked. His was the only vehicle there.

He got out of the car, slung his bag over his shoulder, plopped his hat on his head. The slight mist wasn’t heavy enough to require digging out either umbrella or rain gear.

Stepping onto the path at the gate, he realized that it wasn’t a gravel path, but was instead made of crushed stone. Crushed … bluestone, from the looks of it, when he squatted down to get a better look.

He continued on. Alongside the path was a tumble-down wall separating fields, partially overgrown with hedge and briar. He went past cattle in the field, grazing and occasionally lowing to one another, who took little interest in him as he walked along. Through another kissing gate, and almost suddenly he was standing there before the structure, bare to the sky. One great slab of stone several meters long and a couple wide, supported by three menhir, high enough that he would have to stretch a bit to touch the underside of the capstone. There were a couple of additional uprights at the south end, and several largish stones which had tumbled over. He just stood there for a moment, taking it all in.

Standing there, it is easy to imagine yourself looking over the landscape at any point in the last thousand … two thousand … five thousand years. Because Pentre Ifan is estimated to date back to approximately 3,500 — 3,000 B.C.

Which is the same time period for the initial construction of Stonehenge.

And speaking of Stonehenge … another brief excerpt from SCW, between the protagonist Darnell and Eleazar, a somewhat mysterious old wanderer he has crossed paths with several times, and who he meets at Pentre Ifan:

Eleazar considered Darnell, then stepped around to the side of the dolmen, gesturing for Darnell to follow him. He pointed off to the southwest. “About a mile that way.”

“That’s where the portal leads?”

“No, that’s not where the portal leads. But it is where it came from. It’s where the first circle of stones at Stonehenge came from, as well.” He nodded at the phone still in Darnell’s hand, which was now by his side. “Does that have a map on it? Of this area?”

“Yes.” Darnell raised the phone, tapped the screen a couple of times, then cursed. “Damn. Sorry, no signal.”Eleazar smiled slightly. “Not to worry. When you get away from here, just look up Craig Rhosyfelin, right in the bend of the Afon Brynberian. It’s easy enough to find.”

“Huw at Pistyll Rhaeadr mentioned that place. What is it?”

“In some ways, it is the source. Just as there is a source for a stream which becomes a great river. The source cannot do the things that the river can do, and it cannot be used for good or ill in the same way that a river may be used for good or ill. But it is worthwhile – critical, in fact – to know the source, to know where to begin.”

Craig Rhosyfelin is indeed now known to be the actual source of at least some of the inner bluestones at Stonehenge, something which has only recently been scientifically established. Here’s the description of Darnell driving to the site, and then examining it:

The small back roads from Pentre Ifan to Craig Rhosyfelin were, though it was difficult to believe, even worse than what had brought him to the dolmen. They were little more than cart paths in a slight depression between hedge rows. But it was a pleasant, pretty area, and as he came out of the trees from the west, heading down the long gentle hillside, everything seemed to open up. He was just to the north of the main Preseli Hills. The light mist which had been coming down earlier threatened to turn into real rain, and the local radar had shown heavier storms moving in.

Eleazar had been correct; Craig Rhosyfelin was easy to find on the map, and wasn’t at all far. Furthermore, the site had recently been in the news as having been identified as a source of the inner Stonehenge stones, the oldest part of the structure. He followed the directions Andi gave, and after making a sharp right bend he saw it there in front of him: a lump of rock poking up above the narrow little valley floor. Thirty meters ahead there was a hairpin turn of a switchback, and just at the point of the turn was a small area where he could pull off and park the car. He did so. There was no signage, no formal public access path down to the exposed crag. But he pulled off the road, and got out of the car. He walked over to the fence. It was simple cattle mesh with a strand of barbed wire on top, supported by rough wooden posts. Allowing access over the fence was a small, new-ish ladder that went up one side and then down the other. The sort of thing you’d see countless examples of in the Welsh countryside.

He went back to the car, grabbed his shoulder bag. Then glancing up at the sky, decided that taking an umbrella would suffice for the current amount of rain. Opening it, he went to the fence, then over the ladder to the other side. The way down to the little valley floor was clear. He descended.

Standing there, before the lump of rock, it was easy to see why others might have picked this as a possible source for the Stonehenge bluestones. The whole base of the outcrop was exposed stone, in fractured slabs two to three meters in height. Above that was more such rock partially obscured by gorse and other vegetation. Here and there were suitable stones already about the size and shape of the bluestones of the inner circle of Stonehenge, ready to be split off and carted away.

Though there was still evidence of recent archeological digs, there was nothing fresh, and no one in sight. Darnell went down the length of the outcrop to the left, figuring that he would just walk around the whole 60 or 70 meters of the crag to take the entire thing in. He got down to the point of the outcrop and turned back up the valley on the other side.

Compare that to the images we took on this trip:

I think I did a pretty good job describing the site. Especially considering that I’d never actually been there previously.

OK, this is a weird thing. Prior to this trip, I would have sworn that I had actually been to the site before. When we got there, I knew where to park, where to go, what to expect. There were some changes from my memory, with a new gate entrance, etc, but you might expect that with a few years between visits.

But my wife swears that we’ve never been there before. And had I gone, I would have done so with her. In checking back over my previous travelogs, there’s no mention of Craig Rhosyfelin. My memories are nonetheless vivid of seeing the place.

The only conclusion I can draw is that I spent so much time going over the site on Google Streetview and Google Earth, in looking at images of it online, that I manufactured false memories of having visited it in person. It is a very strange feeling to have both the memories and the knowledge that they are not real. Very strange.

After visiting this magical place, we went north, to the cottage where we’d stay for the next week, in the hills above Dolgellau, just behind Cader Idris. Here it is:

More later.

Jim Downey

 

 



Happy (re)Birthday to me …

A year ago yesterday, I met my cardiologist for the first time. After looking over the results of my stress echo-cardiogram and discussing what it possibly meant with me, he said that I needed to have a cardiac cath procedure sooner rather than later. Since he’s one of the premier heart surgeons in the mid-west, and always in demand, I expected that this meant I’d get put on a waiting list and have it done sometime in the next month or so when there was an opening in his schedule.

I nodded. “OK, when?”

He looked down at my chart, then back at me.  “What are you doing tomorrow?”

Good thing I don’t panic easily.

* * *

Well, as I recounted a few days later, the procedure went smoothly, though longer than usual, with the end result that I had a couple of stents placed to correct a congenital heart defect. It took a while for all the ramifications of what I had lived with, and what it meant to have it corrected, to really sink in. Part of that was coming to full understanding of just how close to death I had come, because even the slightest amount of atherosclerosis, even the tiniest little blood clot, would have triggered a massive heart attack.

But now it’s been a year. I saw the cardiologist several times over that year, most recently a few weeks ago. And, basically, I’m now past it all. I’m no longer taking any blood thinners, I don’t need to take any real precautions, I only need to check in with the cardiologist once a year or if I notice a problem. If I’m smart, I’ll continue to get regular exercise (I now walk three miles each morning, and get in plenty of additional exercise doing yard work and such) and be a little careful about my diet, but those are things which any man my age should probably do.

So, basically, today’s the first anniversary of my rebirth.

And it feels good.

 

Jim Downey

 



Why yes, as it happens I *am* still alive …

The past few months have been … eventful.

* * * * * * *

A couple of weeks ago I got back to work on St Cybi’s Well. Yeah, the break since I finished Chapter 14 was much needed, as I had hinted in my last cluster of blog posts at the end of May.

Why? What happened?

Well …

… in no particular order:

  • Discovery, and subsequent treatment, of a major cardiac health problem.
  • Completion of a full course of cardiac rehab.
  • A substantial change in our financial situation resulting from the sale of property we owned.
  • A bunch of resultant legal and investment research, planning, and changes which every adult should do but few of us ever get around to actually completing. Something about almost dying tends to focus the mind on such matters.
  • A couple of extended out-of-state trips.
  • My starting to train someone from the MU library staff in proper conservation techniques a couple of afternoons a week.
  • A complete new computer system & software upgrade, with all the fun of transferring archives and working files.

And then there’s all the usual business of living and working. Having a couple of months of my life sucked up by dealing with the cardiac problems & treatment meant a lot of changes and trade-offs … but it sure as hell beats being dead from a massive sudden heart attack.

* * * * * * *

So, a couple weeks ago I went through and re-read the entire text of SCW to date, then started working to pick up the story again and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Here’s an excerpt from the next section:

Darnell looked out Megan’s bedroom window, across the little lane into the large field beside the Tanat. The field, where so recently cattle peacefully grazed, was now a small village of tents and temporary structures. Most prominent among them was a large marquee someone had found and brought from a nearby town. Make-shift walls had been constructed of large plastic-wrapped round bales of hay from down the road, their tough skin making them weather and even somewhat fire-resistant. The marquee was the main recovery center, where people would be brought from the church after healing, allowed to emerge from the deep sleep at their own pace.

He turned and looked at his sister, who was sitting on the side of her bed. “There’s no reason for you to get up. We can handle it. Go back to sleep.”

There was a faint blue-white shimmer to her skin which never left her now. It wasn’t like she was glowing, exactly, but more like she had a permanent echo of the healing energy which she had used so much in the past couple of weeks. She shook her head. Darnell wasn’t sure whether it was in response to his comment, or just an effort to clear away cobwebs of sleep. “It’s better if it comes from me. I’m known as the Guardian of the Shrine. That carries some official weight with the Church.”

* * * * * * *

I got my garden in late this year. No surprise, given how things went with spring and the early summer. So my tomato plants were not as far along as they could have been when the first waves of heavy storms hit in June. Since then we’ve had fairly regular poundings of storms. And it looks like the tomatoes are almost at the end of their producing for this year — a full month or so early. But between what I harvested, and extra tomatoes picked up at the farmer’s market, I’ve put up about 60 pints of chopped tomatoes. Not quite as much as I would normally like to have, but not bad considering the situation.

And my habanero plants seem to be doing OK this year. Won’t be a bumper crop, but it ain’t nothing.

* * * * * * *

The past few months have been … eventful.

And a lot of things which normally get done, didn’t. Or were handled in a more superficial way than I would usually do.

But that’s OK.

 

Jim Downey



Spread your wings and … walk?

No, this is not about the ongoing fiasco which is the TSA. But it certainly could be.

Rather, it’s a chuckle I thought I would share about my cardiac rehab sessions. Remember those? I started them about a month ago, with all the expected advice about diet and exercise. Since then, except for a trip to California to visit family early this month, I’ve been a good boy about going to my sessions and putting in the time and effort to meet the goals they have for people who had a couple of stents installed like I had.

Actually, let me amend that: I met all the goals they have set with my first workout session. As in, for where they want you to be at the end of 36 rehab sessions. Today, at my tenth such session I hit twice those goals. That isn’t to say that I am some perfect physical example of athletic prowess; rather, it’s that typically when people have the procedure I had done, it’s usually because they have systemic atherosclerosis with all the problems that entails. I had a genetic defect. And while I am overweight and out of shape, I’ve managed to avoid the real damage of cardiovascular disease.

Anyway, I’ve been going to rehab 2 – 3 times a week, in addition to my regular morning walks and other yard/garden work. Frankly, I mostly hate it. I hate the TVs which are always on, tuned to some inane morning show. I hate the cheery encouragement of the nurses, particularly when they want to go over yet another handout they have about reading food labels and strategies for managing portion control when eating out. And I hate the pap of “motivational posters” featuring lovely outdoor images (which are fine) with mostly trite inspirational phrases in a very distinct typographical style. There are about a dozen of these things on the walls, mixed in with yet more posters about diet strategies and charts showing exertion and pain levels.

But …

… I noticed this one, lost in among all the others:

20160525_090230

It’s a little hard to read, with all the reflection/distortions, but it says: “Limitations. Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea how far you can walk.”

Er, what?

Turns out (as one of my friends noted on Facebook) that this is actually a DEmotivational poster. Yeah, one mocking the usual trite inspirational phrases ones.

I think that this is absolutely hilarious.

I don’t know whether it was slipped in there by someone as a joke which no one else has ever caught, or it was seeded among the others to give cynical bastards like me a chuckle, but it works. I get a laugh out of it every time I go to rehab. It makes the grim process of exercising slightly less annoying. And I think that is wonderful.

 

Jim Downey