“Before the horn of summer caught the tune
Born in the shell of grief. The velvet bone
Of sea-weed forests melted in the noon
And every frond bent down to clasp the stone.”
~ Idris Davies, Sonnet
Sojourning through various regions of Wales, becoming accustomed to landscape and light, my attention was consistently drawn toward the ancient. Antiquity and modernity live alongside one another, often superimposed. Town centers have castles and cathedrals at their hearts, sending forth roads from sites of mediaeval market places. Noticing many stone structures, along with natural formations, and megaliths, it is a marvel to consider their histories. Whether walking along the highest edges of castle walls, or weaving my steps within circles of large standing stones, my imaginings meandered with “what people and times these places have seen!” Sculpted and chiseled blocks were quarried, hauled, and fashioned by many human hands. By their very presence, megalithic boulders and cairns are mysteries. Encountering these sentries, we are left to wonder at their ages and purposes.
Often the hillside stone houses and rugged towers appear to emerge as extensions of the landscape as consistently as the seacliffs themselves. The earth’s very composition is everpresent as it manifests in slate, granite, and soil. On the occasions I’d navigate raindrenched trails, I experienced the terrain attaching itself to me. “God breathed on the clay,” Tozer once said, “and it became humanity; and as the Holy Spirit wafts through us, we become clay.” Simultaneous with my fascination regarding the assemblages of massive stone structures, and with the ancient groupings of enormous dolmens, is to ponder the presence of ancient witnesses in these times. Indeed, there are older antiquities extant- not just in Wales, but in other parts of the world. Yet in these examples, among the stories and memories of densely earthen forms, the past journeys to the present.
From my bead in the time abacus, I am able to freely walk amidst mediaeval royal courts and around ancient ritual sites. With pencil, notebook, and camera, my explorations were abetted by flexible modern shoes. My perceptions had been trained in another hemisphere, a wide ocean crossing away. The ancient intentions of these structures have come to absorb contemporary views and purposes. Their builders and residents may not have imagined the stone edifices were destined to become monuments along paved roads or streets. Further still, any person of any background or social standing can enter. Visiting castles on weekdays, there was plenty of silence and space, allowing for countless writing perches and unobstructed vistas.
The megaliths and cairns appear sturdy, calm, and majestically indifferent. They seem to elude the idea of defeat. And yet, I am simply one of countless pilgrims that arrive to see these places and view the world from their vantage points. In my gratitude, I savored the time for writing in these places and being able to listen to the elements.
Views from atop the walls of Conwy
Conwy represents an example of a castellated town. The turretted castle stands on solid rock at the peninsula-like eastern corner of the walled town which is also encompassed within its built perimeters. To enter Conwy’s town center (as the town has surely grown beyond the mediaeval walls), it is necessary to pass through an arched stone castle gate. It is said that more than 1500 builders and stone-cutters built these structures in the late-13th century. The town church, at the center, dates back to the 12th century. The ancient is very much alive- in creative ways. On the morning I walked the castle grounds and towers, a group of schoolchildren had been busily writing their assignments while seated in the drawbridge area. One of the castellated town walls has a café built into it, not surprisingly called the Tower Coffee House.
Above: Tower Coffee House.
Below: A Conwy street.
Above: A public bus passing through a Conwy gate.
Below images: Essentials within the town's walls: Public Library, bakery, and post office.
Walking the Conwy perimeters, up high atop the walls, there are sweeping views of both town and distant region. Some sections of the walls serve as places to store backyard furniture, and vehicles have to take turns passing through narrow arches in the walls. A parish church uses contiguous sections of the walls for its Stations of the Cross. The relief sculptures are striking in their contexts.
Cefn Bryn is a broad ridge on the Gower peninsula, upon which is the neolithic Arthur’s Stone. This enormous glacial boulder is a cromlech dating back to approximately 2500 BC. The popular legend, as it was explained to me, is about King Arthur walking along the shores of Carmarthen Bay. Irritated by a pebble in his sandal, he threw it across the water and it landed in the form of the boulder on Cefn Bryn. The site had been used for ceremonies beginning in the Bronze Age. Arthur’s Stone is massive, and can be seen from far away, standing by itself on its elevated plain. Walking around it, I was fascinated to see how it mysteriously stands on several smaller upright rocks with a freshwater spring underneath. Though I was there on a windswept afternoon, the sides of Arthur’s Stone were warm to the touch. The view from the cromlech, toward the ridge’s descent to Carmarthen, is as impressive as the Stone’s site itself. I made sure to spend time writing there, though simply looking at the scenery was much more captivating.
That we are drawn to motion ourselves in one direction or another, through great distances or short errands, is itself a mystery we uniquely possess. We tend to refer to a path as “leading us,” but more likely compelling intentions are what drive the soul to take to the trails that lead our steps. Deep within is a continuous urge to strive toward the sites and sources of our hopes. To castle, cromlech, and crag, my paces respond to structures formed from earthen elements. Stone upon stone, garreg ar garreg, the present displays the historic, and the human soul strengthens.
My travels have been training me to carefully listen to ancestral wisdom. What stories do the ancients convey, and are there words to the message? In specific places in Wales, especially those of my mother’s memories, I collected a few small stones and seashells as artifactual reminders. I also brought along shells from Maine to leave in various places, and along with larger gifts to Welsh friends. At the dolmen bearing the name of King Arthur, I did not wish to take even the smallest fragment. Rather, I placed a bright Maine scallop shell into the springfed pool beneath. Casco Bay is a long way from Carmarthen Bay, yet my modestly mortal steps represented the traversal. The words from the stones-upon-stones are to reverence and remember.
A seashell from Maine descending into the pool beneath the cromlech, King Arthur's Stone.
Through cairns and castle keeps, I’d imagine myself in these places when they were not viewed as monuments. What would I have done in a world so different? Then I thought of my 21st century self visiting castles and places like Cefn Bryn, and how we would all perceive one another. As a soul explores a site, the element of time becomes a fulcrum point. While travelling physical distances, then continually transforms into now. In voyages of absorbing the historic, we continue pacing into the future.
("Rhown garreg ar garreg," is a line in a Welsh folk song, meaning "we'll put stone upon stone.")