A Songline to Hiraeth
Driving back home I sometimes go around what I think of as ‘the badlands of Birmingham’. I know this is unfair to people who live there and love it. But for me navigating that industrialised, polluted, congested and commercialised M5-M6 intersection is a nightmare. There must be thousands of people nearby but I see none of them. Their heads all face forward, their bodies are trapped in cars, trucks, offices and factories. For them, i imagine, other humans have become headphones or the radio. Nature and the outside world is the Sat-Nav. We're all connected in this digital world, but the price we pay seems to be the stress of speed and rush. It makes me anxious. I feel intimidated, brutalised, alone. The feeling represents for me the dark extremity of urban civilisation. It's what I turned away from a long time ago.
So branching off the M6 onto the M54 towards Telford comes as a slight relief. The traffic thins, the pressure lifts… a little. As we're still very much in motorwayland it's not obvious that I’m turning onto an ancient road, the one that once went from Dover to Wroxeter (near the Welsh Border), and, some say, all the way through North Wales to Holyhead. Today the route mostly follows the A5. The Romans called it Watling Street, but it goes back long before the Empire. For this direction takes you to Old Gwynedd, wherein lie the sacred mountains of Snowdonia and the holy island of Mon. This was the hub of old Britain and is, to this day, the heartland of Welsh-speaking Wales and the home of the Brythonic Celts, the Cymry. The road could be seen as an ancient songline of Britain, a thread hung with radiant sacred, historical and mythic jewels.
If you have an affinity for Wales or the Welsh you may have heard the word ‘hiraeth’. It’s often used by Welsh ex-pats and is usually accompanied by the phrase: ‘it can’t be easily translated.’ But generally it’s said to mean something like ‘the sad longing for one’s homeland’. I’ve recently realised that driving home along the A5 is, for me, a layer-by-layer revelation of my hiraeth. The further I go the more it builds, the closer I get to the hiraeth-full heart. I may not have grown up in Wales (apart from holidays) but over the last thirty-one years I have grown into it. I now feel hiraeth for what has become my spiritual home.
So after passing Telford the next geographic landmark is the two crossings of the Severn River as it winds around the English Marcher town of Shrewsbury. That’s followed by the Old Oswestry Hillfort, a magnificent Iron Age stronghold slumbering in the Shropshire countryside, one of the best-preserved of its type and lived in long ago by the Cornovii tribe of Brythonic Celts.
Oswestry is borderland. Beyond it the road, train and canal ways are lifted up high over the Chirk Valley. The river that runs far below is the boundary between England and Wales. There is no doubt that you are crossing from one country to another.
Over the border the landscape changes, becoming hilly, green and lush, paving the way for Llangollen, the elegant home of the International Eisteddfod. Every year people come here from afar bringing their folk traditions of dance, music and poetry. It is Wales’s window to the world. With its steam trains and canals it is also connected to the industrial world of England in the east. But it’s the end of the line. The great, black spider of industrialisation came this far but no further.
High above the town is Dinas Bran hillfort, known locally as Crow Castle. Bran means 'raven' or 'crow' but could also derive from Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed, the giant-god-king of the Second Branch of the Mabinogion. He may well have been an ancient Bronze Age god of Britain.
Some also say that because of its location - the dramatic ascent and Dee River winding through the valley below - Dinas Bran could have been the Castle of the Grail. Of course really the Grail Castle exists only in the imaginal world. But if it were to be manifested somewhere in our reality then Dinas Bran could be it. It’s a ruin now, a ragged crown on the hill, but the zigzagging path leading to the summit lends it an air of medieval romance.
Ten miles further into Wales is Corwen, a Welsh market town, plainer and less decorative than Llangollen. But at its hub is a statue of Owain Glyndŵr reminding us of the man who, over six hundred years ago, led an uprising of the Welsh against the English. He was a legendary ‘son of prophecy’, reputed to control the weather and to have the power to be in two places at once. He outwitted English kings – including Henry V – for ten years, making his by far the longest lasting rebellion in Europe at the time. Just before entering Corwen you pass an old Norman motte, now covered in trees, where Glyndŵr and his followers met to launch their first raid. Passing through Corwen peels away layers of modernity and reveals a glimpse of the fierce resistance the Cymry put up to invaders from the east.
Here and there along the way are signs describing this road as an ‘historic route’. It’s almost as if they’re apologising for it not being a dual carriageway all the way. Perhaps it's as close as we get in Britain to acknowledging something as a 'songline'.
Continuing west along the A5 (or 'Ah Pim' as the Welsh call it) and you come to Cerrigydrudion, a small moorland village whose name means ‘Stones of the Druids’. Maybe long ago this was a Druid waymarker pointing the way home to those aforementioned sacred mountains of Eryri and the Druid college heartland of Môn.
A few miles after Cerrig the road enters the Snowdonia National Park, twisting and turning through the infamous Padog Bends then diving a long way down into the upper Conwy Valley. There we come to Betws y Coed, meaning Chapel in the Wood, now a Victorian spa town filled with large shops and grand hotels. There are those who cannot abide the tourist-oriented consumerism of Betws, but because it's in a forest at the foot of the mountains by a fork in the river it has many attractions.
For me it's the potential association with the story of the Grail that gives Betws its strongest allure. At the beginning of the ‘Le Conte du Graal’ (by the 12th century French poet, Chrétien de Troyes) the boy who becomes Parsifal, the only Arthurian hero to achieve the Grail, is said to be from ‘the foothills of Mount Snowdon’.
From Betws the road climbs steadily upward, passing Swallow Falls (another big hotel) and then Ty Hŷll, the so-called Ugly House. I worked there many years ago assisting Esmé Kirby, founder of the Snowdonia Society. When I looked into the meaning of Hŷll I found it could also mean ‘rugged’, which seemed much more fitting than ‘ugly’. But I suppose 'Ugly House' catches the attention more than ‘Rugged House’. Don't they say bad publicity is better than no publicity?
And so to Capel Curig. On a clouded moonlit night it’s possible to see the unmistakeable black silhouette of Moel Siabod against the dark grey sky. Capel Curig is a mountain town with hostels, campsites, pubs and small outdoor shops. It’s a good place from which to go hillwalking, for many paths go from here into the mountains. There’s a weather station here too. Capel Curig is often reported as having the highest rainfall in the country.
Turn left at the end of Capel and you pass Plas y Brenin, the Palace of the Kings, now a training centre for the mountain skills of climbing, hillwalking, canoeing and skiing. But this must once have been the location for a hunting lodge of the Lords of Gwynedd. For from here as you head southwest you are in the heart of the mountains, Siabod looming to the left, the Glyders brooding on the right, and ahead the mighty Snowdon Horseshoe. By the road must be the lake of dreams for this is one of the most spectacular views, not just in Britain but, arguably, in the whole of northwestern Europe.
It’s not hard to imagine that long ago this was a pilgrimage route to the sacred peak. There would have been other ways from the south and west, all converging, I believe, on the ‘Eternal Citadel’ of Dinas Emrys at the foot of yr Wyddfa. It was a hollow hill, benign and offering shelter from elements and enemies. it was the place where the Cymry met and took counsel with each other for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is where dragons are said to have slept, woken and risen up from the earth. It’s where Merlin made his first great and still resonant prophecy. it was a sacred gathering place. (For more see the blog post of 23rd March 2017).
Five miles through this dramatic mountainscape and I come to a junction marked by the Pen y Gwryd Hotel. This is a 'sacred site' too because it was here, in the fifties, that Edmund Hillary trained for the first ascent of Everest. Eryri provides the nursery slopes for the Himalayas.
I’m still climbing upwards from Pen y Gwryd until at last I shoot through Pen y Pass and am born into the world beyond. From there I drop down, down, ever down as if through the mighty thighs of the goddess. Once I was here on a midwinter night when the sky was starry bright. I stopped lower down the hill and looked back to the Pass, From there i saw, through the thighs of the goddess (the V made by the Pass), streaming up across the night sky the astonishing sight of the Milky Way (Caer Gwydion in Welsh) with a dynamic star-studded Orion leading the way.
After a few more miles I’m at last through the mountains, past Nant Peris and Llanberis, and into the fertile coastal plain of Arfon. Whereas the mountains are sparsely populated, here are many towns and villages. This is the Welsh heartland. Llanrug, between Llanberis and Caernarfon, has the highest proportion of Welsh speakers anywhere in Wales – the world for that matter. We are getting close to the heart of hiraeth.
But I still have a little further to go. At the foot of Llyn Padarn I cross the old bridge, look up at cloud-shrouded Snowdon and say hello to some of the oldest rocks in the world, the rounded, pre-Cambrian granite of Fachwen. Then I head up through forest on a narrow winding lane the other side of the valley. After a mile there is a scatter of houses and a sharp turning to the right onto a steep downhill track. Another bumpy half mile and I am literally at the end of the road.
This is it. Cae Mabon. I’ve recently taken to thinking of it as a Neolithic village with Wi-Fi! Down the hill, just facing the thatched roundhouse, is a woodshed. On the side of the woodshed one word is painted beneath a rainbow: HEARTH. What a word! It contains ‘earth’, ‘ear’, ‘art’ and ‘heart’. All are rich associations with the meaning of the world ‘hearth’, which also, of course, includes fire and cooking and stories and warmth. In Welsh word 'arth' means 'bear' and is the root of the name Arthur. Another rich layer of meaning. What I’ve only just realised is that if I put myself into the word, if I add an ‘i’, then I have all the right letters to make HIRAETH.
So this is the hub of my ‘hiraeth’. At the end of this journey, this Ah Pim songline so rich in memory and story, is my earth-art-hearth-ear-bear-heart. My hiraeth!