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TWO FALLEN OAKS: The Hole, the Steps, the Bridge and the Hendy Head

Over the winter two mature oaks fell from the riverbank into Afon Fachwen, the little white river. One was near the gate to the Padarn Country Park. The other toppled onto the old slate bridge.

The first tree left a gaping hole where its root ball had been wrenched from the ground. Park officials put temporary fencing around it to stop people falling in. But there was no sign they’d do further repairs. So, after sawing up and removing the fallen trunk and branches, I cut back the protruding roots and, with help from the CM crew, filled the hole with river stone and gravel.

The final touch was soil around the roots and planting primroses, bluebells, a fern and a foxglove. It became a miniature wild garden. I was reminded of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken pots are mended with gold, making the repaired object more valuable and honouring its broken history. Perhaps we were doing something similar with the damage wrought by the fallen trees.

In mid April we worked to repair the fence broken by the falling bridge tree. Luke cut up a hanging branch from a nearby tree then Peter and Jodie wove a lattice of boughs into a beautiful rustic replacement fence.

In early May I turned to the ragged jumble of stone on the path leading to the bridge from the Park gate. You always had to pick your way carefully along here.

When I looked closely I realised there were many decent step stones nearby, as if they’d been randomly pulled up and thrown aside. Perhaps this was deliberately done to stop carts passing when the old mill was closed at the onset of WW2. So I set to work and, with a couple of helpers, made a rather fine run of steps up to the bridge. I have a feeling they’ll last rather longer than me.

The idea arose that Peter could carve the bridge tree stump into something special. I thought of the Hendy Head, a stone head found on Ynys Môn (Anglesey) now in the museum in Llangefni. It was from pre-Roman times when the island was the heartland of the Druids. The original head was flat on top, perhaps for placing offerings.

Peter liked the idea of liberating him from the museum and putting him back in Nature where he was found. I wondered if he might be a version of Gwydion, the trouble-making trickster, storyteller and magician of Welsh mythology. He’d been the focus of a cult on Môn into the 20th century. Gwydion or not he seemed to represent the ancient Druids. So between 11th-14th May Peter sculpted a beautiful and convincing replica of the Hendy Head. Over the next few days it met with widespread approval.

But on the 18th May we were shocked to discover that the face had been cut off with a handsaw in the dead of night and stolen.

This was sad and disappointing to say the least. We wondered about re-doing him and bolting him back so he couldn’t be sawn off. But we decided to consult passers-by first to gauge feeling on the matter. We set up a ‘polling booth’ for people to pop stones into a ‘yes’ jar or a ‘no’ jar. Obviously the spot was unsupervised so there were some anomalous votes, with occasionally many stones appearing (sometimes in both jars) in a time when such numbers couldn’t have walked by.

After a week we counted up the votes. Including the anomalous votes there was a two-thirds majority in favour of restoring the Head. Excluding them the majority was three-quarters. The view of the naysayers was that the sculpture distracted from the natural wild beauty of the place. It’s true: a human face does attract attention. Surprisingly some found it ‘sinister’ and ‘ugly’. Often those who object have the loudest voices. So after much reflection we decided to respect the views of the vocal minority and not replace the sculpture by the bridge. Peter would, however, still carve another head.

Meanwhile we worked to replace the broken fence over the bridge. Originally it was to be two parallel rails with vertical slabs, cleft from the fallen oak: a standard fence structure. But in looking for an oak to make rails we found one with a curve and almost accidentally created a shape that looked more like the double helix, with a third eye for good measure: lots of lovely natural curves.

As a finishing touch to the bridgework – and following a request from one of our regular passers-by – we also made a bench from the fallen oak slabs. It’s a good spot to pause and enjoy the special place.

One of the really positive aspects of this work has been meeting many walkers taking their officially permitted daily exercise. Because of lockdown restrictions all were locals from the villages around the valley. Some people were running or cycling and rarely stopped. But many had time on their hands so we got chatting. We had almost daily encounters with some folk and got to know each other a little better. There was bonhomie on the bridge, the place where five paths meet and cross the river. Everyone we spoke to liked what was going on. Some were touchingly delighted when the Old Druid’s Head appeared. When it came to unveiling the new head, we knew who to invite.

We decided to put Hendy Head Mark Two downstream near Cae Mabon’s greatest oak. Just above it the river splits, flows round Salt Island and into a fine waterfall with a deep, clear pool and stepping-stones to the sweat lodge. It’s just opposite the sunrise door on the workshop and the Hobbit Hut. It’s our best view of the river.

But it had recently become a bit of a dump. There was a pile of scrap wood, a heap of woodchip, a stack of sleepers and a hank of rusty old fence wire. In the early days we’d had a sweat lodge in that spot but had moved it across the river a few years ago. I knew it was a good place for something, but didn’t know what. So, while Peter carved, Luke, Ken and I cleaned up, cut some overhanging hazel to let in more light, spread the woodchip on the ground. At the bend in the river we put up a plinth made from two half-sleepers, some cut slate and a length of the bridge tree trunk. Voilà! We are ready for the thing!

We casually invited a few neighbours and friends: ‘If you happen to be passing and would like to make a short detour…’ sort of thing. The whispered word was there would be to be a half-secret midsummer’s day unveiling. With live music, sangria and cake!

Jodie singing 'Free!'

It’s impossible for an artist to create the same thing twice, unless making a mould or print. This is especially true for a sculptor. So much depends on the material at hand and what’s in mind. This time Peter was thinking more of Mabon who is, of course, the ‘guardian spirit’ of Cae Mabon. Mythologically he’s the ‘Great Son of the Great Mother’, a divine youth, solar deity, pre-Christian Christ. In the ancient story he was the only one who, riding the ‘White Horse with the Dark Mane’, could overcome the forces of darkness, (the Savage Boar and the Chief Giant), thereby releasing Olwen, the Spirit of Spring. Mabon, according to the tale, gets us through dark times.

Photo by Keith Robertson

So on Sunday 21st June, riding on the high tide of the summer solstice, Mabon finally came to Cae Mabon in the (well-spaced) presence of women, children and men from the local community. Usually people come to Cae Mabon from across the land and around the world. This day they came from within walking distance. It felt like a significant shift. There’s no knowing that means or where it will lead. But there is a promise in it.

Photo by Keith Robertson

And now, at that bend in the river, we have a warm, mischievous, playful, ancient and youthful sage smiling down on us. Once people might have dismissed such a thing as a graven image or false idol. But at Cae Mabon we like to imbue special places with extra meaning. Sometimes a sculpture can help do that. Who knows what it will become? Perhaps people will gather there and call on higher powers for strength and healing. Whatever happens we’re pleased to have found a new sacred spot, a seat for Mabon, that we hope will give pleasure and solace to many for years to come.

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