Landscapes with lost souls
Washed up, I decided to regard myself as becalmed, and being confined to quarters as an opportunity for indulging in two of my favourite activities: dreaming and foostering. So off I went, pootling virtually all over the place fossicking for a memory here, a connection there … And I wondered if there might be an overall theme for all my online wanderings, a question which exercised me for a while until it occurred to me that the solution lay in my own hands. Yes, I could invent a link. So I would. Why not?
I skipped back over my traces, arriving at the date. “Tomorrow is the 1st July,” I thought. Among others, it’s the feast day of St Cewydd – the Cambrian answer to St Swithin or France’s St Médard (of recent bloggy mention). Little, if anything, is known about St Cewydd. He might have been one of those intrepid and hyperactive Welsh or Irish Christians of either sex who studied, wrote, faced all manner of terrible dangers (including, let it not be forgotten, the English!) and were essentially the very people who persistently, and with non-violent heroism, kept civilisation alive during some very dark times. An object lesson in constructive commitment, each and every one, one way or another.
But back to Our Holy Man: aside from speculation, there only remains St Cewydd’s patronage of rain. (Poor bugger, for how likely is rain almost anywhere in Wales at almost any point in the year? Quite!) Clearly, he requires rescue. Here it is! Thus, the late lamented holy man now has a new rôle: I have nominated him Patron Saint of Hiraeth. ‘Hiraeth’ being the Welsh term for a form of homesickness that entails a profound longing for one’s hearth, for roots, for a sense of belonging. Powerful stuff, this cluster of strong feelings – and therefore surely deserving of some form of divine governance to at least watch over those undergoing its worst manifestations. Perhaps Cewydd could help these lost souls to find where they belonged, or were needed, and where roots might once again be established – before it is too late, as it must be for some.
St Cewydd is associated with Anglesey; but there are other signs of his presence or followers in locations in South Wales, in Powys and extending over what is now the Border into Herefordshire (Cusop’s Church of St Mary was originally dedicated to Our Boy). If he were ever anything but peripatetic, perhaps his original church or cell was something like that of Saint Patricius in Issio: a haunting, isolated haven of restorative tranquility. Saint Patricio in Issui – Partrishow – is out in the hills beyond Crickhowell, reached only by a serpentine series of those pot-holed precipices that pass for roads up where the Black Mountains meet the Brecon Beacons. There you’ll find a tiny medieval church at the top of a steep hill overlooking the Grwyne Fawr. Partishow has one of the most
atmospheric interiors I’ve yet encountered in such places, offering riches varying from an ancient font to a beautiful 15th century rood screen and loft. Then there’s the unmissable mural, the ‘Doom’ (see thumbnails – click to enlarge). Cheery looking character, isn’t he? A reminder that life’s short, produced well before the memento mori became a fashionable cliché of Northern European Renaissance painting. Or is he one of those Christ of the Trades figures, so beloved of a newly-formed band of tradesmen growing in self-confidence as the depredations of the Black Death put skilled survivors at a new premium? If so, what is He in that skeletally-reduced incarnation doing in such a remote spot? I don’t know, and luckily I am not too strictly constrained by the factual here.
So let’s leave unanswerable questions and wander back over the hills down to the Wye Valley. The River Wye, curling around the landscape like a leisurely brown snake, lazy mostly but occasionally suddenly welling to greedy fatness (that rain again, you see). Then the river floods, and swallows up so much of the red-brown earth that it loosens the great red-brown stones, causing landslips, forcing drivers and their vehicles, groaning and grumbling, up into the terrible hills – where who knows what awaits them?
Celts, cross at the incursions into their territory? Characteristically and historically, they retired to the high ground to repel invaders, engaging in highly effective guerilla warfare. And for a long time. When Wales eventually fell to its more powerful neighbour, the defeat was largely due to internecine strife and treachery. Now they’ve got it back again, the same old, same old doubtless continues.
But at least now peace prevails. Those Marches (the Welsh Borders, shifting constantly but approximately the land on either side of Offa’s Dyke) must have seen terrible carnage on many occasions. Some spots, indeed, would – and did – spook the horses. On those occasions we riders looked around us carefully: no deer, no joggers – nothing, nobody. But the horses stood stock still. They refused to move, yet they were alert, listening. What could they hear? Whatever it was, the horses found it frightening enough to wait for it to pass. No amount of kicking, of coaxing or cursing would work: we simply had to sit firmly on our saddles, balanced and ready for the off – the ghostly go-ahead, a signal only the horses heard. Then, as if nothing had happened, they would suddenly decide the coast was clear and calmly proceed.Whatever it was our mounts had sensed, it was evidently sufficiently threatening to stop them in their tracks, yet not enough to cause them to shy or bolt – actions which would have been prompted by something they could see. And these incidents occurred invariably in exactly the same spots in the woods, where old paths led up the increasingly steep hillside to the densely-wooded summit.
Another Anglo-Celtic interloper returning to just one among many choices of ancestral landscapes, I asked myself which side my forebears might have fought for in these brief, bloody wrangles that were for so many centuries as much a feature of the landscape as the big, brown river itself. Impossible to tell, tribal loyalties being ever as shifting – and as treacherous – as quicksand. And all the while long legions of unquiet, wandering souls tramped on sore, soldierly feet, silently climbing the hillside behind my house; weaving through the woods, tense and tight-lipped with determination, towards their final battles. Perhaps our hiraeth-resolving Saint might provide them with some solace? You’d hope so, wouldn’t you?
What do you think Cewydd might do for you? Shh. It’s your choice, your secret between you and him. Whisper it: only he can hear you. Only Cewydd – plus any horses and ghosts who happen to be around at the time, of course.
Click on pix to enlarge (the first one, of Tintern, definitely merits closer scrutiny) .
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