A Poetry Blog

Once by Llyn Tegid
‘Loud are the birds; wet is the shore.
Bright is the wave with its wide motion
That which youth believes –
I would love to get it again.’

Llywarch Hen ( 5th/6th (?) Cent.)

All this happened nearly 20 years ago. The grey photograph is all that’s left. I stand in a shadowy room, before dawn, wearing thick woollen long – johns and a tweed cap, peering through curtains, willing the light to come. Outside is a snow filled valley, with ornamental trees, and below that, a small town at the head of Llyn Tegid.

I have been awake most of the night, the life of Old Llywarch winding and rewinding in my head; of his princely prime in The Gogledd (Cumbria) the favoured friend of Urien Rheged, the warrior king. Llywarch it was who carried home Urien’s severed head after the Saxons had finished him in war; Llywarch, father of 24 brave sons, all heroes, born to die in battle. In old age, he came south, in exile, to live out his legendary days in the Vale of Dee, and there, racked with infirmity and remorse, he saw his youngest son ride out for battle at the ford of Morlas.

‘Sharp my spear, bright in battle;
I am gearing to guard the ford,
Though I may not escape; good bye.’
(stanza 56)

Downstairs, people are stirring. I can smell bacon frying, and soon, soon after that, I will step out into the last dominion of Llywarch Hen. Breakfast is at eight.  We talk of the snow that has fallen in the night, of the sweet home cured Welsh bacon, the microwave, the way it does scrambled eggs, and then comes the sweetest news of all.

Our host is curious to know what we plan to do. I mention the Awen Meirion bookshop. He begins to apologise for the ‘Welshness’ of it all, then stops, when I say I’m interested in the Welsh heroic stanzas. Ah! he says, your man at the bookshop was last year crowned Bard at the Eisteddfod.

In the dark and windy January town, we brave the snow, and head for Awen Meirion; its first and only visitors. The shelves are, indeed, stacked with Welsh versions of everything under the sun, for we have come to the very heartland; in time, maybe, to beard the bard. The young woman behind the counter listens kindly.

‘I am looking for traces, traditions, thoughts, recollections, the folk memories of Llywarch Hen. Is it true that The Bard can be found close by ?’

‘It’s his day off, being Saturday, and any way I think he may be has a Council meeting, but you could try him at home. His house is in the main street, just opposite the fire station.’

By this time I can barely contain my excitement. I almost sprint away through thewet snow, having hastily arranged to meet Ann later, in the White Lion Hotel, for coffee, or lunch perhaps, perhaps !

The door of the tall Victorian villa opens after a long pause. A man in the last stages of dressing to leave, stares out at me; collar unbuttoned, hair unruly.

‘I’m sorry, I’m late for a council meeting. What is it you want ?’

His eyes move down to the map (OS 125) and blue book I am clutching to my chest – in an attempt to shield it from the snow. “PATRICK K. FORD, THE POETRY OF LLYWARCH HEN, INTRODUCTION, TEXT AND TRANSLATION.” – Berkeley Calif. U.S.A. 1974

‘You’d better come in’ he says, with a far away look in his eye.

He admits to being Elwyn , crowned Bard of all bards. I explain my thirst as a scholar, and my love for the old craggy lines of the earliest British verse. We talk of The Red Book of Hegerst, and The Black Book of Carmarthen (sources of the almost forgotten oral stanzas, first copied down in medieval times) and of Llywarch, a man of pedigree, prince, and cousin to princes, of his latter days here, by the shore of Llyn Tegid.

‘There is a Llanfawr beyond Bannog,
Where Clwyd flows into Clywedog,
And I do not know if that’s it, my friend.’
(stanza 224)

Late tinkerings by crafty forgers ? It’s questionable. We finger the map, and relive the agony of Llywarch, as Gwen, his last and best loved son, goes down fighting. Bard Elwyn’sintuition places Morlas east of the town, where a whiteriver rushes out of the dark woods of Penllyn. There is a cone shaped hill called Garth Coch. THE RED FIELD,and I will come to that.

‘Four and twenty sons were mine;
Gold torqued battle prince,
Gwen was the best of his father’s sons.’
(stanza 78)

We talk on. Council meetings forgotten for a while. Would I like to see The Bardic Chair ? In deep red polished Yew, designed in the high Celtic style, it stands tall, almost filling an alcove in this high ceilinged room. Its smooth arms are wide and welcoming, the carvings magical.

Would I be able to sit on it ?

Of course !

And in the next few fleeting moments, a force flowed through me. I was filled  with the presence of something older, some spell more ancient, a tide of wakefulness that will stay with me for ever. Then he reveals a hidden drawer beneath the seat bench. It is crammed with a thousand things on paper, manuscripts, jottings of every sort. The poet’s own word hoard.

But your famous poem. What was that about ?

About the night of the great gale; and how my mother left the world that very
night – an elegy – would you like to hear some of it ?

He unrolls a broad scroll of parchment, and begins to read its bold calligraphy in what R.S. Thomas described as ‘soft consonants, strange to the ear’ a music, sweet and sibilant, known to humanity before meaning ever was. Then time takes hold of us. We part with a handshake, and with that comes an invitation, which I neither forget, nor think about until this moment.

‘ If ever you want to talk about poetry again, come back, and knock at this door’

I found Ann in the White Lion. We had a hot lunch, and over a pint, or two, of Felin Foel, I shared the story of my meeting. There remained but one thing left for us to do: to find the ford at Morlas.

East along the valley the snow turned to rain. At Garth Coch, we came to rest  beside a river in wild spate, brown from the peat, not battle red, these days. I stood awhile in the shallows. The rain pelted, sharp as Saxon arrows, gouging my face. It was a grim place, and lonely beyond measure, except for a solitary crow, still hanging out for carrion.

We retired to the car, and sat together, to re-read the stanzas of Llywarch’s mourning, the trials of his old age, and then his gnomic stanzas; mysterious, cryptic, their ambiguities touching ways of life and death. Night came on early, fierce rain beating down, and our thoughts turned toward our own hearth and home, in Elmet, 200 miles away.

Then from behind us, the noise of iron boot nails on stone. The shape of a man bent against the rain, cowled in a thick hessian feed-sack comes shambling past.  A man drenched through, dressed in almost timeless things; a man from nowhere, who might be expected to ask what our business was, there at the ford, late on a winter’s night, yet he pays no heed, makes no greeting, as if we ourselves are invisible, not of his world. He came out of the mist, and then vanished.

Silence, except for the drumming of the rain.

In all the wildest moments of my heart’s imagining, I never thought that I would come this close.

‘Fierce in spear-fight, daring in valour,
He brought a discipined host against the English.
This is the grave of Gwen, son of Llywarch.’ ( stanza 76)



Mike Bannister, Poet

June 2023

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