When Spring returned to West Wales this year after a seemingly endless grey winter, we headed down to the Pembrokeshire coast to bathe all our senses in sun, wind and sea. All the wild flowers seemed to have arrived at once. Primroses cascaded down the cliffs like pools of morning light, and bluebells lined the path; translucent white campions and clumps of nodding pink thrift turned the wild shoreline into a rock garden, and we came upon a whole meadow of the blue flowers called spring squill.
I recalled the poem by the Welsh poet Thomas Telynog Evans, which captures the startling contrast of the seasons in this land, and indeed all the lands of the Celtic Northwest fringe:
All the sweetness of nature was buried in black winters grave,
and the wind sings a sad lament with its cold plaintive cry;
but oh, the teeming summer will come bringing life in its arms,
and will strew rosy flowers on the face of hill and dale.
In lovely harmony the wood has put on its green mantle,
and summer is on its throne, playing its string-music;
the willow, whose harp hung silent when it was withered in winter,
now gives forth its melody.
Hush! Listen! The world is alive!
As we neared St Davids Head, misty blue islands came into view on the horizon, whose traditions remind us that the realm of Spirit is very much alive here, too. These are the Gwerddonau Llion, the Green Meadows of the Sea, otherworld islands akin to Avalon and the Irish Blessed Isles. Sometimes they are visible to the eyes of mortals for a brief space, when suddenly they disappear. There are traditions from the early 19th century of sailors who actually went ashore on these islands, but on returning to their boats, were amazed to see them instantly vanish behind them. Other tales tell that those who visit for what seems like a few hours will return to find that whole centuries have passed away.
These islands are the abode of the faery race called Plant Rhys Ddwfn, (plant hrees thoovn) the Children of Rhys of the Deep. A small, handsome tribe, they used to come to the mainland to attend the markets at Milford Haven and Laugharne. They made their purchases without speaking, and always left the exact sum required even thought they never asked the price of anything. To ordinary eyes they were invisible, but from time to time, some keen-sighted persons caught the odd glimpse of them.
These faeries grew certain strange herbs on their island which kept it hidden from mortal eyes. The only other place these herbs flourished was on a certain spot in the churchyard of St David’s Cathedral. One day, a man called Gruffydd ab Einion (Griffith ab Eye-nee-on) stepped on this spot and the islands sprang into view. He tried to sail out to where he had seen them, but as soon as he put out to sea, they vanished again. Then it occurred to him to cut the turf on which he had stepped and place it in his boat, whereupon the islands appeared once more and he was able to go ashore. The faeries welcomed him warmly, showed him the wonders of their home, and sent him back to the mainland loaded with gifts. But they made him leave the piece of turf behind. After that he became a lifelong friend of the Children of Rhys of the Deep, and the gold they gave him made him the richest man in Wales.
(Photo: by Corbistiger)
One of these islands, Grassholm, a huge rock now haunted by birds, is said to be Gwales, where the Assembly of the Wondrous Head came, according to the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr in the collection of Welsh medieval tales called the Mabinogi. The head belonged to the giant Brân, one of the Old Gods of Britain. He had perished in a bloody battle with the Irish, but his severed head was able to speak, and it ordered his surviving followers to carry it to London and bury it under the White Mount, where it would henceforth safeguard the country from all invaders.
The Assembly journeyed back across the Irish Sea and came first to Harlech Castle where they sat at a magical feast for seven years, entertained by the music of the birds of Rhiannon. Then they sailed southwards to the island of Gwales where they entered a great and resplendent hall with two open doors and one closed, which Brân forbade them to open. Here they spent eighty years in joyous revelry, unaware of the passing of time, all their troubles magically forgotten, while the head of Brân proved as jovial a companion as when it was attached to his body. But of course one of their number, Heilyn son of Gwyn, disobeyed Brân’s instruction.
“‘Shame on my beard,’ said he, ‘if I don’t open the door and find out whether it is true what is said about it.’
He opened the door, and looked out to Cornwall and over Aber Henvelen. And when he looked, suddenly everything they had ever lost – loved ones and companions, and all the bad things that had ever happened to them; and most of all the loss of their king – became as clear as if it had been rushing in towards them.”
Time poured in as if from a breached dam, and they left the eternal island to trudge eastwards to London and bury the now silent head, which came to be called one of the Three Fortunate Concealments of Britain, according to the Triads. Actually someone dug it up later, and his name was Arthur, but that, as they say, is another story.