We’re off to Wales again this weekend. Last time it was for a surprise 70th birthday party of a relative, who was surprised because, like all of us, inside her head she’s still seventeen. This time the party is a 50th and this weekend, because it is allegedly not winter, we will be camping.
I surprised myself by how much I like camping. I thought I might miss the plumbing or the kettle but there is much to be said for wild peeing and the kettle I have for the tent whistles. I think that nights under canvas, well not strictly speaking canvas but you get the idea, connect me to my Viking daydreams. You can be just a little closer to being a shield maiden when you are rolled up in your sleeping bag.
Wales. That mythical land. There are National Parks I know, several in Wales in fact, but Wales also qualifies as a National Theme Park because you have to pay to get in. If you travel from my part of the country that is. In fact the access to Wales from my neck of the woods lends to its mythic qualities, from the South West you have to cross a bridge and pay a toll, you don’t get more fairytale than that.
It’s a Principality, therefore full of Princes, or at least at one point in history it was (a quite bloody spearpoint in history to be accurate.) There are castles pretty much everywhere you look and not the namby pamby sort that someone did a Grand Designs on in the 1700s we are talking proper full on stone built fortresses. There is, of course, no shortage of dragons.
I married a Welshman and so over the years have been shown the secrets of Wales. I have yomped and hiked and trekked all over the place from cave to cove to rushing waterfall. Wales has a lot to offer the passing tourist who is of a Pagan, romantic or mythical persuasion. It is the land of the Mabinogion; we are talking flowers and owls, badgers and beetles, the red kite. The place is elemental.
Only recently prehistoric antlers were dug out of the sands at Ynys-Las, the fossil remains having been revealed by a particularly low tide and a bad storm. It is fitting that those two natural events combined to reveal the hidden historical treasure. There is magic in the fact that it took a specific time and tide and a storm to reveal this beast. He was, perhaps, hunted down in this primeval forest, the remains of which form nubs and stumps, resinous and squidgy beneath bare feet. You can walk through these forest remains, but only at certain low tides, a portal to other times, hidden in the sand.
Waterfalls are more whitewater rushing in Wales courtesy of the tempestuous weather. Hey, some people complain about this elemental aspect of Wales, I think it is one of its greatest assets, freshening and refreshing, moody and atmospheric. Rivers run through valleys, washing down through the rocks and crevasses, tumbling and raging. The Four Waterfalls of Ystradfellte offer, amongst other natural wonders, Sgwd Yr Eira, the Snow Falls. The wildhearted can walk the narrow ledge path to walk behind this curtain of water. Diamonds, I know, are just stones made from pressurised carbon, I prefer my diamonds to be cut from water, ever changing and lightcatching.
Once you’ve sacrificed your dry clothes to the element of water you can try out some earth. If you want you can head to the organised adventure of the Dan-yr-Ogof caves but the more feral might favour the secret splendour of Culver Hole, erstwhile dovecot and smugglers cave. The last time I was there you could climb in with the help of a tattered sea rope. Once again you’re entering a portal, a hidey hole, somewhere the giants could not reach the hero, where only his lost love could be found.
Air next. Stackpole anyone? Wrestle the wind, let it take your breath away, let it take the weight off your feet, the wind will whet your edges, make you salt-hearted and breathes life into the last element.
Fire. Where do we find fire in Wales? In the hearthstone heart of St Fagan’s museum? In the urban heart of Cardiff? Go along the coast away, along, along and along at last to where, at the turn of the Worm’s Head, the sunset ignites the skies.
I have been putting the finishing touches to a new book, ‘The Ice King’ this week. It’s an origins story and part of a new series that will be coming out soon titled ‘The Witch Ways’. A black dog has an important role in this book and it is a totem and magical animal that I am always attracted to. The chain of thought that this writing has rattled concerns some cogitations about my feelings towards dogs.
A black dog features in folklore and fairytale and they range from a fire eyed hound to a shaggy helpmeet. They are always monstrously large, chihouahas don’t feature in much British folklore, and some of the dogs are carriers of human spirits or the embodiment of a ghost. Still others are watch dogs, hunting dogs and the especially wonderfully monikered ‘Church Grims’ a title for which Greyfriars Bobby might actually qualify.
One of the joys of writing is that you can come upon these beasts and creatures and adopt them for your own ends.
I know there are lots of dog lovers out there, I’m not, strangely, one of them. I’m rather afraid of dogs having been menaced by both a corgi and a cocker spaniel as a child. Stop laughing at the back, when you are four a cocker spaniel is really quite menacing. To be honest I’m not that much taller than a spaniel now. Anyway, despite all this pedigree trauma I always felt that if I had a dog I would not have a yappy one (corgi, cocker, NO) instead I would invest in something on a more mythic scale. I would have an Irish Wolfhound (Irish, got to be if I am to cling to my mythically Celtic roots). Wolfhound. It’s got ‘Wolf’ in its name, what’s your average Hopelessly Pagan Romantic going to do? I cherished this dreamhound for years. I would call him ‘Finn’.
Etched forever on my memory is my first meeting with Henry, the Irish Wolfhound. He was owned by the mother of one of my daughter’s friends. They lived in a cottage style house in a local village, quite bucolic. I was picking my daughter up on this particular afternoon and I’d been instructed to come up the farm track and knock on the back door. I arrived to find a huge five bar gate and after some minor gymnastics I managed to lift the latch and walk in. (I wasn’t wearing a red riding hood but I hope you’re getting the fairytale vibe off this encounter.)
A knock at the door produced no response so I knocked again. As I did so I heard footsteps behind me and I turned. I was face to face with the largest, hairiest dog I have ever encountered. I am five foot one, Henry was five foot three. He could look me right in the eyes if he stooped a little, which he did as he was rather curious. His eyes were, truth be told, soft and friendly. His nose, big and black and wet, sniffled at my face like a canine hoover and he stepped closer. I had nowhere to go, my back grazed against the render of the cottage wall. Henry reared up, taller still and rested first one paw and then another on my shoulders. I entered that state of paralysed euphoria they say you fall into when being mauled by a lion. He was, at that moment, a truly mythical beast and, as I looked up into his panting jaws through a haze of grey fur, I thought that he might possibly have been sent from some nearby Sidhe to fetch me. I was going to be away with the faeries in a trice.
Henry did not eat me that afternoon. He was a friendly dog and was simply resting his paws after a somewhat strenuous walk. Needless to say this encounter quoshed my notion that I might one day have a wolfhound; I have to say they look much smaller in the medieval portraits. Henry, I was told, required his own sofa, never mind a basket.
When his heart failed him a few years later I was very sorry to hear it, tears were shed into the bread dough that day. I like to imagine this kindly gentleman beast, escorting guests each evening to and from the Sidhe, guiding them into the Otherworld before finding a peat fire somewhere and settling himself on the hearth, resting his paws once again after the longest walk.
One of my many obsessions is werewolves. I’ve been mulling them over of late because I’ve been writing a book ‘The Ice King’ which involves my riff on the idea of shapeshifting and wolves.
One of the things I’ve discovered in my researches is that there aren’t any werewolves in Iceland. Fact. Well, I know that there are lots of people who would say there aren’t any werewolves anyway but stick with me. There aren’t any werewolves in Iceland because there aren’t any wolves. They are not indigenous to the country as there are no forests. A nation’s were-creatures are born out of the wildlife that lives there, hence were-tigers in India.
There are elves in Iceland and you have to ask them for planning permission should you wish to knock up a cabin. Hm, I see doubt furrowing your brow, trust me and Google it.
Despite not having werewolves, the Icelanders do still have the notion of shapeshifting. In old Icelandic the phrase for being a werewolf or shapeshifter is eigi einhamr, which means ‘not of one skin’ and is used for those of a more feral persuasion shall we say. Shapeshifting, taking on the attributes of a particular animal or having a totem animal is as old as time. I don’t doubt that the first hunters took the skins from bulls and antelope and sabre tooth tigers and dressed themselves in them, at first to keep warm, but then, there would be a moment when they’d feel different in the skin, maybe balance the beast’s head on their head and looking out through the jaws they’d pretend to be that creature. Pretend to roar, or howl. It would feel good. We’ve all done it ( the roaring bit, not the skinning bit, I live in a townie bit of Wiltshire) and we all know how primal that feels. Roaring is good.
The Icelandic term means to adopt the sensibility of another creature, to reach for or replicate qualities that might be attributed to another animal, to be, in essence, not of one skin, not simply human. So, the first hunters find their hunting ground, their home territory under threat from some other tribe and, when they have to fight to defend it and they are all scared they discover it gives them strength to wear an animal skin, to wear animal teeth, to hide themselves within the power of the beast. The Berserkers did this, under the guise of the bear skin they wore they could forget themselves and disappear into bearkind, become a bear, a crazed and powerful fighter.
Nowadays some guru somewhere has cleaned up the language and we call it visualisation of course. I prefer Berserker, but that’s clearly why I’m not a guru. I think I might have liked to be in on a Norse Self-Help course and, frankly, just imagining how that might be; sword wielding, shield shoving, ale drinking; makes me feel much better. Stronger. I won’t be picking up a few bits in Tesco later, I will be pulling on that faux wolf fur throw that’s on the sofa and raiding the store, plundering possibly. The idea is one we can adopt for ourselves and we can find strength in being a badger perhaps. Although after the roadkill I saw this morning I don’t think I’m going to be taking on the mantle of a hedgehog anytime soon.
Of late, I’ve been thinking that what we need, in this mad world, is to remember that we can be werewolves, we need to look away from the computer screen and stop tapping at the phone and remember the moon and the stars. Remember the sky. Listen to the birds; that’s especially good at four o’clock in the morning at the moment, a proper chorus that Gareth Malone would give his eye teeth for. Woodpeckers for percussion anyone?
If I suggest you go skinny dipping however, choose a mountain pool or some brackish bog surrounded by purpled heather and golden gorse. Don’t do what I did and try the local boating lake because it’s no joke having to walk the long way through town because you’ve been banned from The People’s Park.
As a little present, I’d like to send you The Ice King for free – you just need to tell me where to send it…