The Shore in November
of grey cloud
that wakes me
and takes me
over washed stones
of leaves laid low,
tumbled walls and
all heavy hung
to the cliff-bound shore
with gull and diver
and the hiss
and the boom
of spume in the air,
and the headland
Beyond this moonless shore are flung a thousand leagues
of silent sea,
where shifts the restless ocean’s face in hill and vale
and rolling lea.
And ancient farers plied those waves – and costly cargoes
I have seen,
of amber, furs, and ivory… but in some
far, forgotten dream.
Above the darkened land is hung a million miles
of velvet sky,
where drifts the heavens’ gleaming dust, and titan suns
are born, and die.
And starry symphonies I’ve heard, and astral strings
all played upon
the winds which wend those spangled gulfs… but as some
faint, forgotten song.
Beyond the fields I know there run ten thousand miles
unknown to me,
where lift the mighty mountain chains, beyond the plains
And there I saw a dusky queen, and in her eyes
divined this price –
we’d live and love through all the years… but in some
fled, forgotten life.
A wild, misty shore such as the one in The Shore in November might be placed anywhere in the Celtic West, from Brittany to the Outer Hebrides, and if any of these fit within the scopes of our experience, so much the better. For me, the location can be no other than one of the windswept strands close to my old clifftop home within a mile or so of the most westerly point in mainland Wales. From there (that hallowed outpost of early Celtic Christianity where the very slabs of the cliff face are an episcopal purple), gazing west-south-west over the Celtic Sea and past the unseen coast of Ireland, the wide, shifting plain of the Atlantic lay – and no other landfall for countless leagues until the great continental mass of North America. There, on those dark end-of-year days when the Atlantic winds began to mount their assaults, bringing with them their rain, and all the coastal vista became a mysterious, mantled grey, the spirit of Nature at her rawest and the long-gone centuries’ legacy of ancient stone were keenly felt.
Set upon the very same shore, but this time on a dark, moonless night, Beyond allows the imagination to wander into three perspectives – the gazing outward to sea, the gazing upward at the night sky, and the looking backward to the dark body of the land.
And what shipping has passed this western shore! Nowadays great tankers out of Milford Haven, and container ships from ports all over the globe can be seen crawling across the horizon. But there is no romance in that, and to find something of the sort we would have to go back a little in time, to the early 20th century, at least, and more so the 19th, when passenger vessels out of Liverpool crowded with emigrants, so many of whom were our ancestors, passed by, making their way into the Atlantic and onward to America with its hopes and dreams. And with the 19th century we are firmly back into the age of sail, when Welsh ports large and small were forests of masts and rigging, those of ocean-going vessels and the multitude of coastal traders which plied their way between north and south, and beyond. Such sails to imagine, passing out there. And staggering and thrilling to think, standing today on that shore looking out to sea – and it is the same shore, and the same sea – that out there it was, in that distance and on that horizon which we now observe, those sails had passed, century upon century ago, and that they were seen through eyes, olden, long-gone eyes other than our own. And I am bound to let the more recent past, fascinating as it is, give way to those remoter times.
I would look out on those islands known today by such un-Welsh names – Ramsey, Skomer, Grassholm – these were the three always within sight. Those Norse-given names – Rhagfn’s Ey (Raven’s Island); Skalm Ey (Cloven Island); and further out and lonelier than these two, the bare, rocky ‘holm’ (islet) which has nary a scrap of grass but which is home, nevertheless, to thousands of fishermen; its great colony of northern gannets (the Grassholm, too, which is the ‘Gwales’ of Branwen, where Bendigeidfrân’s seven loyal companions sojourned, but in Faerie’s non-mortal, dreamland time, for all of four-score years). And I would imagine the sleek craft of the Dublin Norse stealing across the great curve of St.Bride’s Bay, or perhaps others from further afield in the Hebrides, the ‘Southern Isles’ of their Sagas, passing by and on their way to harry our own southern coasts. Why, those Norsemen even gave a name to the little skerry, the meagre rock outside small Solva’s picturesque inlet – ‘Graensker’, known to this day as ‘Greenscar’. (And should you ever happen to be looking at a map of the Eastern Roman Province of Pannonia, you will find, there, a garrison town on the Danube Frontier named – yes, you have it – Solva. Both Pannonia and adjacent Moesia had very substantial, embedded Celtic populations, too, so … but no, not a chance of a connection! – Fun Fact only! English ‘Solva’ < Welsh ‘Solfach’, of course. Is Solva [Wales] twinned these days, I wonder? (Solva [Pannonia] might be in Hungary now, I think, and be known under a modern alias). It’s puzzling, to me, how (and why) these places have retained Norse names. Take Swansea (‘Sven’s Ey’); why on earth should this name for the town have persisted? The Pembrokeshire islands, too – the Norse were transients, in Wales, and as far as I know there is no real evidence of their settlement, unlike their Kingdom in Dublin, for instance, or their settlements in the Scottish islands. Why should the local Pembrokeshire Welsh populations continue, or even begin, to call these places by their Viking names? And to wander off a little again, talking of such hijackings, doubtlessly the great goddess Brigid (the ’Bride’ of the Bay) and great indeed she was in Irish mythology, was corralled into sainthood by Pope Gregory’s dictum that pagan beliefs too deeply-rooted to be removed were to be clad in Christian trappings, and heathens thus weaned away from their old beliefs.
Rome policed the ‘western approaches’, and ancient eyes would have spied from any one of our shores Imperial vessels plying their way between north and south – between the naval base of Segontium ( > Caer Segeint > Caersaint) in Arfon and the southern one in Cardiff. At Lydney, on the west bank of the Severn (lost now to the English county of Gloucestershire) was a Fleet Supply Depot, and there were signal stations along various stretches of our coasts; all was taken care of. And 300 years even before the beginning of the almost 400-year Roman presence, watchers might have spied the ship (or ships) of the Greek navigator and explorer Pytheas of Massalia (modern Marseilles) tread our home waters.. Pytheas and what he is said to have accomplished has always fascinated me; I have imagined his pilot taking note of the long outthrust of Penmaen Dewi (St.David’s Head) and the prominent height of nearby Carn Llidi as landmarks for their lost, but much remarked-on periplus.
I stood far out on the Head, once, and called out to him:
‘Ahoy, Captain! Whither bound?’
“See where the red-gold riband runs
aloft there when the western sun
doth sink afar when day is done
Look where horizon’s silver race
crosses the shifting ocean’s face –
Is there some other, unsung place
List when the west wind tells its tale
of spectral clouds and landforms pale.
Hark to this bygone captain’s tale
Then the wind took his voice, and I could hear him no more.
Pytheas had left his populous pond which had long-time doubled as Emporium and Theatre of War and sailed beyond the Fretum Gaditanum, the Strait of Gibraltar, past the still somewhat enigmatic tin and lead-bearing places/islands said to be north-west of the Iberian peninsula already known to the Phoenicians/Carthaginians – and into the Irish Sea, continuing northward, from what can be retrieved from descriptions in his lost work, even into the Arctic regions and then southward, it seems, along Scandinavia., the Baltic, and Germania. Stories of the existence of a great frozen waste, ‘Hyperborea’, had over several centuries sifted through to the comfortable confines of the Mediterranean, but bravo, Pytheas, who left the warm climes and great cities and actually went there! What a voyage, and what a feat that was! This was during the Greek Classical era, and was fortunately documented. But long, long before Pytheas, who else? What mariners and what manner of craft of the unknowns of the Bronze, the Neolithic? And no-one to tell of the tale! But out there in the bay, and within sight of clifftop watchers, for thousands of years, they were to be seen. That is certain. And this western sea-route had its genesis in a very remote past, and far, far away from our northern lands.
That conditions for settled communities (cereal-grain and livestock farming) were present and were developed in what we now call ‘The Middle East’, the regions of the historical Mesopotamia and The Levant, is well-known to all. The great irony of this remarkable shift in life-style from wandering hunter-gatherers to sedentary communities is that the very condition of staying in one place would, with time and natural population growth, mean that future elements of that settled society would necessarily have to leave it and strike out on their own; in other words, start ‘footing it’ again – they would have to move out, those sons and daughters, on their own, to seek (or rather to create) pastures new. Travel they had to, and travel they did, and their getting up and going set in motion what was to be one of the greatest migrations in human history. Following an initial thrust into the coastal parts of eastern Anatolia circa 7,800 BC, to refresh our memories, their westward progress is very firmly evidenced in the Aegean, the extensive littoral of which would enable them to diversify into cereal-grain farming on the adjacent mainland, sheep-rearing on the islands, whilst also practicing the other major aspect of their coast-based economy, fishing. A pattern which was to prevail for a long, long time, as residents of our own coasts and islands can to this day testify. From there they continued to the Adriatic, then along the whole of the northern coast of the western Mediterranean to the Andalusian region of the Iberian peninsula and on to the Atlantic facade, entering our own waters c.4,100 BC. They had opened up the ‘Great Western Sea Route’.
Imagine what would occur over such a thousands of miles, thousands of years trek! They would meet up with others along the way – the foragers who had preceded them; other Afro-Asians and Indo-Europeans, too, who composed the other (North African and inland European) thrusts of this Neolithic spread. Interactions, resulting from these – adaptions, adoptions, contributions, replacements; exchanges of artifacts, technology, religious ideas; intermarriage, displacement of peoples, linguistic accretions and losses; changes in genetic patterns and in skin-pigmentation from the absorption of light in the higher latitudes… all this. And all the while others, over those same thousands of years, would follow the first pioneers, losing sight of them, settling, building, until the Bronze Age train and then the bearers of Iron came, and overtook, and established their newer ways, and the coastal trading cities sprung up in the long wake. Yes, it is the sails of all of these that would be seen in our Irish Sea.
It was a seaway that would remain open for millennia. During the period of Roman domination, it was allowed to remain open as a mercantile route to their ‘Mare Nostrum’; after their departure it continued the Mediterranean trade, and acted as a busy, resurgent highway during the ‘Age of Saints’. During the Mediaeval period it saw much use of troop transport, as armies were ferried to and fro between France, Wales, and Ireland. And so on, and so on, into the Great Age of Sail… Then, in our own time, there were the Welsh skippers who ran Franco’s blockade during the Spanish Civil War, operating from such ports as Cardiff, Newport, Swansea in southern Wales, and St.Jean de Luz in south-west France, delivering fuel, medicines, guns and ammunition to the Republicans in Bilbao and Santander. The most well-known of these was Captain ‘Potato’ Jones of Swansea, with his real cargo deep beneath the tatws of his tramp-steamer, Marie Llewellyn. There was Captain Lewis James Herbert of Borth, and Captain Dan Nicholas of Tresare, north Pembrokeshire, great-nephew of Jemima. A Captain William Roberts of Penarth, too, was among that band. Between them they rescued, sometimes during bombing raids, an estimated 25,000 refugees on their return trips. And a good number of us will remember – how could we forget! – Sioni Wynwns out of cousin Brittany shouldering his yoke of stringed onions, going his rounds and conversing with one and all in good Welsh. I remember Breton trawlers anchoring for the night off the north Pembrokeshire coast. Those were the seafarers, and that was our seaway.
And what can we say about the night sky? Nothing. For it is there to astonish, to astound us, and make us ponder on what we are. How many times have we gazed in wonder at the great, shining constellations poised over all creation – at the Plough, at Cassiopeia, at the Pleiades; at the great Irish constellation, O’Ryan … but come – let us be Sirius!
Then all the hidden land stretching away from us, as did the sea. The opening lines of the first stanza – ‘Beyond the fields I know’ – begin with words which echo a concept familiar to anyone who has read Dunsany – e.g., ‘Go from here eastwards and pass the fields we know, till you see the lands that pertain clearly to faery; and cross their boundary, which is made of twilight, and come to that palace which is only told of in song’. We could be back, with these words, among the enchanted seven who sojourned in otherworldly Grassholm’s ‘fair royal palace overlooking the sea’… And the closing lines of this stanza give an intimation of that lady who first appeared by candlelight in Ceridwen’s Candle / Manifestations of the Muse in a previous post; she appears in various guises in a number of these poems (as the Naiad in Lays of the Armoured Isle ; as the Lady Nemõné in The Wakened Rose / Lays of the Armoured Isle , and will make herself known in others to come. She may, as this time, be seen as one among a circle of shadowed faces in the dark interior of a nomad yurt. But it is not necessary, as in the stanza, to visit the vast spaces beyond the Zungarian Gates; for she may also be found on a mountainside in Wales
where the path curves out of sight,
in the chaos of the stones,
in the shadows of the blackthorn and the ash.
She has oak leaves at her brow;
and whitethorn trailing low
in profusion from her waist down to her knee.
Her eyes are dark as hazel haws, her form,
of witching grace; her limbs are apple russet brown.
Flown time is in her face.
She may appear as a Dark Queen, a mountain sprite, or in a candle’s light; as a woodland or water nymph, or as a fleeting face in the marketplace. Or on the wind-swept shore of the beginning, a lone, scarcely-distinguishable figure in the distant haze of sea mist and salt spray. She will be walking away from you, and like Rhiannon, the gap between you and her will always remain the same. She will never allow you to gain her side.
‘The Shore in November’ is from ‘Welsh Past and Present’
‘Beyond’ is from ‘Journeys in Time’
‘Pytheas’ Reply’ is a slightly altered version of the first three stanzas of ‘The Lay of Torcebrand’, from ‘Lays of the Armoured Isle’ in ‘The Lost Manuscripts’
The Dunsany quotation is from ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’
‘The Oread’s Song’ is (minus its first line) from ‘Spirit on the Mountain’, the omitted line being ‘I think there is a spirit on the mountain’