Where the water whispers mid the shadowy rowan-trees
I have heard the Hidden People like the hum of swarming bees:
And when the moon has risen and the brown burn glisters grey
I have seen the Green Host marching in laughing disarray.
One of the few remaining habitats of the faery race in Britain and Ireland is a certain kind of woodland: off the beaten track and rarely frequented by humans. There was one very small area near the ford down my lane – a few years ago, I would half-sense, half-see them there at twilight: smallish, sturdy, warrior types who sometimes appeared with raised bows and arrows. They were highly suspicious and defensive – and well might they be, for a couple of years ago the man who owns the piece of land by the stream cleared the tangle of bush and briar, and coppiced some of the trees where they lived. I have not seen them since.
But on Easter Sunday, a day made bright as a blade by a chill east wind, David and I visited a most remarkable wood where the faeries had clearly taken residence. This is what they call in these parts a “hanging wood” – a long sweep of dwarf trees clinging to the banks of a dizzyingly steep cliff. Most of them are sessile oaks, stunted by strong sea winds, their branches twisted into improbable shapes by their constant battle with the elements.
The canopy of interwoven branches provides shelter for plants that have always been associated with faeries. Bluebells line the path into the trees: not for picking, unless you want to be pixie-led and never come out of the woods again. Primroses are pools of pale yellow light in the dappled shade: protective plants which keep evil spirits away. Wood sorrel, known in Wales as “fairy bells” are said to summon faeries to their nightly revels.
Then there’s the wood anemone, whose name means “daughter of the wind”; and enchanter’s nightshade, whose botanical name, Circaea alpina, reveals it as the flower of Circe, the woodland enchantress in Homer’s Odyssey.
The hanging woods come to an abrupt end at a thick blackthorn hedge which appears to keep the leaning trees – and the unwary walker – from tumbling off the cliff into the sea below. I stood for the longest time gazing over their glistening sprays of white blossom, my jacket snagged by their merciless thorns, watching the prehistoric-looking cormorants fly back and forth to a large rock, some of them with beaks full of tidbits for their young. Two seals briefly showed their bobbing heads above the water before disappearing into its depths again. This end of the wood reminded me of the poem, “Green Rain” by Shropshire poet, Mary Webb:
Into the scented woods we’ll go,
And see the blackthorn swim in snow. . .
There are the twisted hawthorn trees
Thick-set with buds, as clear and pale
As golden water or green hail–
As if a storm of rain had stood
Enchanted in the thorny wood,
And, hearing fairy voices call,
Hung poised, forgetting how to fall.
I am reminded of other faery woods I have walked in: the brooding assembly of ancient mossy oaks in North Pembrokeshire, where visitors in the 1920s reported hearing the pipes of Pan. Hidden among these trees is a cave said to have been the residence of either a local druid or the Irish saint Brynach – or perhaps they both lived there at different times, worshiping different gods, beneath the sacred mountain of Carn Ingli, the Mount of Angels.
Further afield are the haunted dells of Into the Faery Woods on Dartmoor, the ferny foxglove hollows of the Fairy Glen on the Isle of Skye, and in Ireland, well, it’s still a country blessed by quite a few wooded faery haunts, probably because people still hold Them in respect and put out offerings of milk and cakes in woodland shrines to keep Them sweet. But if one springs to mind, it’s a certain hazel wood under a rocky cliff on the Burren in County Clare. At its heart is a holy well and flowing stream – it’s the kind of place where Wandering Aengus himself might have found his “glimmering girl,” as Yeats tells it in his famous poem.
So what makes a faery wood? In such places, the web of life is still intact. The invisible silver threads that link tree and plant, bird and insect, wind and water, are all connected in an etheric structure that scientists like to call an “ecosystem.” The inherent natural harmony of life is like a struck bell, whose sound ripples out in patterns of sacred number and geometry. Such a place holds a particular kind of resonance that appeals to certain tribes of the faery race, who are nourished and sustained on such energies just as humans are by food. For instance, the clairvoyant writer, Geoffey Hodson, in his book, “Fairies at Work and Play,” describes watching a small brownie who looked exhausted, passing into a tree:
“While observing the form I lost touch with the consciousness, which retreated to the centre of the trunk of the tree, and appeared to spread itself out into the corporate cell life of the tree. Ten minutes later, the brownie reappeared, rejuvenated and dancing with life and joy.” (page 49)
This is why the traditional Scottish people who were very attuned to the spirit world followed the practice of creating a “Gudeman’s Croft,” a part of their land or garden which was left to grow wild, and where faeries could joyfully play, feed on the energies of sun, water, plants and soil, and regenerate themselves. Interestingly enough, this is now recommended as sound ecological practice in permaculture, the science of sustainable gardening, as it creates a fertile environment for birds, bees and insects. The hidden people appreciate it, too.
Leaving the enclosed world of the hanging woods for the immensity of sky, sea and air, we walked along the coast path, passing the occasional wind-sculpted hawthorn, which seemed to cling to the cliffs for dear life.
Then turning landwards for the road back home, we hiked over hills of coconut-scented gorse, passing a ruined oak where young lambs watched us with great curiosity.
I have a plan to return to this enchanted place one summer evening between the two lights, to sit with a quiet mind watching the dance of tree and wind, perhaps even catching a glimpse of the hidden people of the hanging woods.
Photographs by David J. Watkins and Mara Freeman, © 2014