Last Christmas (it was only three weeks ago – seems like forever!) was the bi-annual get together with Mr Stoatie’s side of the family and so we set off with the dogs, for a weeks holiday at Romaldkirk in County Durham.
We stayed in a converted barn in a holiday let complex just off one of the three village greens. The village itself is very picturesque, even in the dismal winter weather and must be a honeypot in the summer. For the first few days we had relentless rain and strong wind, then Christmas Day we had a glimpse of blue skies between the squalls, and finally some crisp frosty weather for the remainder of the week.
There used to be a railway line through the village run by the Tees Valley Railway which has since been converted into a public footpath. There’s an interesting site here which tells you all about it. In a break with tradition it was decided that the Family Walk (along the old railway line) would take place before The Presents and The Dinner.
With an elderly dog, and having been ill myself, I had an ideal excuse to head back when the freezing hail and strong wind got too uncomfortable. Mr Stoatie and the eldest daughter nobly offered to accompany me! For the entire time we were out this rainbow remained in the sky.
Some parts of the Church date back to Anglo Saxon period, although it’s believed that the Scots laid waste to most of it a few years after the Norman invasion. Unsurprisingly it’s dedicated to St Romald who was born in Northamptonshire in 650AD, I’m not sure how he came to be venerated up here. It’s said that Romald (or Rumwald) was a grandson of King Penda, the great Mercian king whom I’ve a bit of a soft spot for – he was one of the last pagan kings!
Romaldkirk is only ten minutes away from Barnard Castle. When we were courting Mr Stoatie and I had spent a couple of weeks camping nearby and had visited the Bowes Museum there. My abiding memory was watching the swan automaton so we took the eldest daughter with us to relive the experience. The swan is only wound once a day, to help preserve the mechanism, and it’s truly magical. It used to cost a guinea to see the swan a few years after it was manufactured in 1773 and was quite a crowd puller by all accounts. In this age of CGI it’s hard to imagine how awe inspiring this would have been in those days.
The museum, which was purpose built to house the collection of the Bowes family, is a beautiful building, styled, rather incongruously, as a French chateau and is packed with art, fine furniture and costumes. It’s well worth a visit.
Mr Stoatie and I managed to get out by ourselves for a couple of hours on Boxing Day and took the dogs for a walk around the nearby Grassholme Reservoir. It was absolutely perishing, with a really stiff wind pelting us with hail every so often. Even the ducks looked fed up.
The farmland around the holiday lets was used for stabling and there was a constant stream of cars going past each morning and evening. Some of them drove so fast through the yard that I was worried the dogs and I would get run over in the dark. The grey pony above was given hard feed and a hay net, but when it’s owner left, the sheep from the next field used to get in under the wire fence on the other side and help themselves!
The little Shetland pony below was alone in a tiny field, about the same size as our garden. It was fed regularly but I felt sorry for it, the ground was almost completely poached. Does the poor thing get taken out for walks? (Not while we were there anyway) Isn’t this the equine equivalent of keeping a goldfish in a bowl?
On our last full day at the first campsite, we decided to visit Caws Cenarth Cheese, a dairy farm which has been producing award winning cheeses since 1987. This was when the introduction of quotas by the EU meant they had a surplus of milk to dispose of so they decided to upscale their cheese production to make use of it. The farmer’s wife had previously made it for the family’s use on her kitchen table. We had been passing their signs for days and so we set off up and down the tiny welsh lanes to find them.
The blurb in their leaflets promised an opportunity to watch the cheese being manufactured but unfortunately we arrived too late to see anything. They had a small museum exploring the history of cheese making in the area and displays about the process of making the different cheeses. My particular favourite was a video of cheeses being dipped in wax – it was strangely satisfying.
Across the yard from the ‘viewing area’ was a small shop. There was a tiny room with wooden seats and a TV where we were invited to watch a video of a TV programme about the farm, which included a visit from Prince Charles. It was an actual VHS so not the best quality, and was really just repeating what we’d learned previously. I suspect it is a means to reduce the queues at the counter where we were invited to try a selection of their cheeses. They were all excellent and we came away with a selection, although I had to persuade Mr Stoatie to leave behind a huge piece of Stilton which had been marked down because the veining hadn’t spread evenly. It was a bargain but would have completely filled the van’s fridge!
As a postscript to this story, we were discussing our selection of cheeses later and I expressed regret that I hadn’t brought a particular variety. Never mind I said, I’ll buy a truckle at a shop, they’re bound to sell it locally, and it doesn’t matter if it’s more expensive as it’s just the one. Imagine my reaction when I find it’s considerably cheaper! You’d think that buying at source would be better for your wallet, I must admit I felt a little cheated.
The lady in the cheese shop had recommended taking the dogs for a walk on Poppit Sands so we headed there next. After having paid quite a bit to park we headed for the beach, I was a little disappointed as it was heaving with folk, and rather flat and dreary, although an area of rocks did save it somewhat. Looking back I’m not sure why I had such a downer on it, maybe it was simply because it wasn’t Uig!
The next day we packed up the van and set off to a campsite on the outskirts of St David’s. The drive was really pretty, we skirted round the Presili Hills and then drove along the coast. Preseli was on my to do list, but Mr Stoatie’s thigh just wasn’t up to it unfortunately.
The campsite was ideally located a ten minute walk from the town in one direction and the coast in the other. The campsite itself had seen better days and the toilet and washing up facilities were in dire need of refurbishment but the pitches were mown and the place was very tidy. We were kept amused by the antics of the resident robin who was so friendly he ended up perching on Mr Stoatie. We always keep a supply of bird feed in the van btw!
I woke up in the night and had to get up and go out to star gaze because there above us was the Milky Way, hurrah! Nothing like it to lift the spirits.
Once we were up in the morning I proceeded to haul everything out of the fridge as we’d been experiencing a whiff of rotten eggs on and off during the night and I thought maybe something had gone off. When nothing was discovered decaying in there, I proceeded to remove the entire contents of the van in an effort to track it down. It wasn’t until I got to the cupboard at the back that the source of the smell was discovered. The leisure battery had shorted! Mr Stoatie disconnected it and we left everything out and the cupboards open until the stink dispersed.
In the afternoon we had a wander into St David’s for a mooch around and treated ourselves to fish and chips for dinner. Charlie kept us and a couple on a neighbouring bench amused, by sliding down the grassy slope above the Cathedral on his stomach over and over again. I think he was an otter in a previous life!
The next night was pretty windy, we were planning on heading out to do some exploring in the morning, but when we came to put the lid down we discovered that one of the bolts had sheared off the hinge and it was impossible to close. Fortunately the bolts are pretty standard and we thought that the tiny old fashioned ironmongers in St David’s had saved the day by providing a replacement. However trying to fit it proved to be impossible, Mr Stoatie couldn’t reach the hinge easily as we had no ladders, and I couldn’t bring the roof down low enough for him to work either. It had to be held down at an angle which was about six inches above the reach of my extended arms. I ended up swinging off the handles like a gymnast on the rings and was in so much discomfort it was clearly not going to happen. It was also still blowing a gale which didn’t help. In the end we managed to get the lid closed by adjusting the direction of the van to streamline the roof with the wind. It still stood a little proud and we ended up gaffer taping it down. Oh the shame!
So we had no leisure battery, and a roof which would have to stay down until repaired, possibly after the holiday, which probably wouldn’t have bothered us under normal circumstances but added to this was the fact that Mr Stoatie’s thigh had been progressively getting worse and worse over the course of the week. He was OK during the day providing there was limited walking with plenty of rest stops, but during the night when he relaxed he was in agony and had to constantly shift position. If you’ve ever shared a bed in a camper you’ll know that if one of you wants to turn over the other one has to too, which means that you never really get an unbroken nights sleep. This was ten times worse, (especially with the added moaning!) and both of us were beginning to feel the effects of sleep deprivation. After a night to think it over we decided to pack up the next day and head for home, at least we’d have a week to recover before work. You’ll get an idea of how bad Mr Stoatie was when I tell you that I had to drive the ScoobyVan all the way back! It was a disappointing end to a long awaited holiday.
This is the second part of our trip to West Wales last September.
Whilst camping in Carmarthenshire we managed a trip to two local cromlechs, this, the larger of the two is Pentre Ifan and is supposedly high enough for a man on horseback to stand under. As it’s just eight foot I think they may have meant a man on a pony.
The monument is on a hillside with an amazing outlook over Fishguard Bay – a tomb with a view! It was constructed around 4000 years ago and is the remains of a long barrow. There would originally have been a mound of earth over 120’ long laid on the top and which would have extended around the entrance to form a courtyard a little like Belas Knap. The huge capstone, which looks delicately balanced on the tips of the surrounding stones has been estimated to weigh 16 tons.
There is a connection with Druids, as according to W.Y. Evans Wentz, writing in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
"The region, the little valley on whose side stands the Pentre Ifan cromlech, the finest in Britain, is believed to have been a favourite place with the ancient Drulds. And in the oak groves (Ty Canol Wood) that still exist there, tradition says there was once a flourishing school for neophytes, and that the cromlech instead of being a place for internments or sacrifices was in those days completely enclosed, forming like other cromlechs a darkened chamber in which novices when initiated were placed for a certain number of days….the interior (of Pentre Ifan) being called the womb or court of Ceridwen. "
Of course it could have been re-used by the Druids for this purpose, it would have been ancient and probably disused even then.
In June 1884 it was named as Wale’s first scheduled Ancient Monument.
Another fascinating thing about it is that it’s a focus for fairy sightings. One of which described them as being as small as little children, dressed in clothes like soldiers’ clothes, and with red caps.
Waldo Williams, one of the greatest Welsh Language poets of the last century was born in Preseli, which is just up the road from Pentre Ifan. He was predominantly a folk poet (Bardd Gwladd) and his verse celebrated the locality and the people who lived there. The following poem was inspired by the monument.
Before the sun has left the sky, one minute
One dear minute, before the journeying night,
To call to mind the things that are forgotten,
Now in the dust of ages lost from sight.
Like foam of a wave on a lonely seacoast breaking,
Like the wind’s song where there’s no ear to mind,
I know they’re calling, calling to us vainly –
Old unremembered things of humankind.
Exploit and skill of early generations,
From tiny cottages or mighty hall,
Fine tales that centuries ago were scattered,
The gods that nobody knows now at all.
Little words of old fugitive languages
That were spritely on the lips of men,
And pretty to the ear in the prattle of children –
But no one’s tongue will call on them again.
Oh, generations on the earth unnumbered.
Their divine dreams, fragile divinity –
Is only silence left to the heart’s affections
That once rejoiced and grieved as much as we?
Often when I’m alone and it’s near nightfall,
I yearn to acknowledge you and know each one.
Is there no way fond memory can keep you?
Forgotten ancient things of the family of man?
Translated by Tony Conran
The second cromlech was closer to the coast, near the River Nyfer’s (Nevern) mouth, in a small field by a housing estate in Newport. It was tiny in comparison to Pentre Ifan and you had to hunch up to get under the cap stone. It reminded me of a toadstool, I absolutely loved it, there was such an amazing and friendly energy to it.
Both these cromlechs are aligned with the nearby hill of Carn Ingli (‘Hill of Angels’) which is part of the sacred landscape, although it is difficult to envisage Carreg Coetan’s position in respect of the others, enclosed as it is with hedges and houses. Carn Ingli would have been a great place to visit as it has a large number of interesting monuments - neolithic tombs, standing stones and an Iron Age Hillfort. It apparently takes it’s modern name from the antics of a local Christian saint, St. Brynach, a great friend of St. David, who used to climb the hill to converse with angels.
In December the Wildwood celebrated Alban Arthan at our Grove on the Edge. The weather was kind to us and we stayed dry which is always a bonus. The altar was decorated with evergreens and fairy lights. The mistletoe was a large bunch from the OBOD Winter Gathering in Glastonbury, and was cut from an apple tree in the same valley as the Stanton Drew complex of stone circles. It was lovely to be able to share it with everyone afterwards.
The rune stick Guy had left at North was still in situ but the little straw figure of Bride we keep in the cleft of a Beech tree had disappeared. A fingertip search revealed her swan feather gown and a length of gold ribbon on the floor – now tied on to the nearby holly as a cloutie. There was nothing at all in the cleft, not even the greenery we use as decoration which was very strange. Either everything had been removed deliberately or it had succumbed to the weather. Maybe the little Bride doll’s time had simply come to an end.
In the Summer we’d noticed that someone had left a Green Man on one of the nearby Rowan trees. This is on a little hummock behind Bride’s tree, overlooking the Grove, and is a lovely place to meditate. There is a little oak, ash and thorn growing on it and it’s very fey. It’s interesting that someone chose the same spot as ourselves to work, considering how big the woods are. The masculine energy of the Green Man compliments that of the Goddess (of course!) and we’ve grown quite fond of him.
Our next ritual is Imbolc, which is dedicated to Bride and will be held in the Grove. We’re planning to make another little Bride doll, with input from everyone, and shall be installing her back in her bower.
As part of our Alban Arthan ritual we always recite the poem, The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper, each taking a line until it’s finished.
The Shortest Day
So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
This is the first of a few catch up posts from last year!
Mr Stoatie and I went down to the OBOD Winter Gathering which was held the second weekend of December. Unfortunately due to problems with getting leave we could only stay for two nights – we usually like to have a couple of days either side because it’s such a long drive down.
The Winter Gathering takes just takes place for one day and begins with a Ceremony at Chalice Well, followed by a an Order meeting in the Town Hall. This includes the now traditional Mistletoe Ceremony, which is a beautiful experience. The centre of the hall is heaped with mistletoe which is an amazing sight, particularly for us northern folk who have no native mistletoe and who only usually get to see the sad sprigs on sale for a King’s Ransom in the shops.
During the morning Philip interviewed ‘Youth’ or Martin Glover later during the Eistedfodd he was awarded the title of Honorary Bard. This is a link to Philip’s blog where you can hear the interview and see some photos of the Town Hall in all it’s glory. There was also a bardship awarded to the artist Jamie Reid, which was collected by his agent.
In the afternoon we were treated to a workshop with Karen and John from Sli an Chroi which was really great ( I wish they lived a bit closer!) and then in the evening we had the legendary Eisteddfod. What’s nice about the Winter Gathering is that there’s an opportunity for the crafters and writers to display their wares too, so you could pop in the Green Room on and off all day to mooch.
We only managed to take photos of the Eistedfodd, and a mighty fine line up it was too. No photos of Damh, we were up dancing!
An Exchange Of Gifts
As long as you read this poem
I will be writing it.
I am writing it here and now
before your eyes,
although you can’t see me.
Perhaps you’ll dismiss this
as a verbal trick,
the joke is you’re wrong;
the real trick
is your pretending
this is something
fixed and solid,
external to us both.
I tell you better:
I will keep on
writing this poem for you
even after I’m dead.
Image from here