Telling the Land

by Eric Maddern

From the Gatekeeper Trust Annual Conference 2014, ‘Urban Pilgrim’, in Pewsey, Wiltshire
29-30 November 2014

Eric Maddern spoke at the Annual Conference 2014, telling some stories as part of his talk and in the pub in the evening!
Here is an article that contains some of what he shared with us at the conference, including ideas for collaboration with Gatekeeper on a pilgrimage and a storytelling project that is starting to take shape.

Lessons from Aboriginal Australia

I’m going to start by taking you to the other side of the world to the Central Australian desert, where I lived and worked for a few years, back in the early eighties. I spent time with the indigenous people and learned a little from them. They had been naked nomads, expert minimalists who survived by roaming the land and harvesting its natural abundance. I think of them as primal rather than primitive, the first people who perfected their hunter-gatherer lifestyle over thousands of years. They knew things at the back of what we know now – fundamental, basic, core things – like, for example, how to grow a child into an adult.

But the dimension of their culture that is most relevant to my subject today is what’s become known as ‘walkabout’. The Aboriginal people have a powerful creation mythology made up of stories explaining how the world came into being. These myths tell the origin of the sun, moon and stars, the animals and plants, the first people, fire… Outstanding features of the landscape – waterholes, rocks, hills, rivers – have stories explaining how they, and the plants and animals associated with them, came to have the qualities they have. Collectively these tales have become known as the Dreaming.

As the people move around the land they visit these ‘sacred sites’ and tell the place its story. Except they don’t just tell it. They perform it, they re-enact it. They wear masks, paint their bodies, put feathers in their hair. They stamp the ground and chant their songs into the air. These events are rituals, ceremonies, and they have two very powerful effects. First is on those who take part in them. By re-enacting the story of their own Dreamtime ancestor, they ‘become who they were at the beginning of time’, thus contacting the eternal part of themselves. They come away strengthened and emboldened by touching their universal essence. But they also leave the land in good heart. Their stamps and songs ring out and somehow the land feels it – who knows, maybe drinks it in gratefully. And so it flowers. You tell its story to the land and together rejoice. The participants are refreshed, the place is revitalised. Fertility flourishes.

You can tell that this ritual work is important to the Aboriginal people. They call it ‘business’. Someone who is deemed very knowledgeable and experienced in ceremony is called a ‘big business man’.

This process re-consecrates sacred places. By admiring a place, by recognising its beauty, by giving thanks to it, even by saying ‘let’s play’, it could be that the land gives you gifts in return. These may be its fruits and berries, but they may also be the feeling of fullness in your soul.

Beautiful Road

It reminds me of an old wondertale, told me by Laura Simms, where a young man has to go to the Land of No Return to bring back the Healing Leaves to cure his wife’s father’s blindness. His wife is a princess, her father, the king. He himself is nothing but a poor poet. He gets instructions for the journey from a dangerous giant who tells him that he will come to a place where the road will disappear. ‘There will be nothing before, behind and all around you,’ says the giant. ‘You will be completely lost and alone. Say, with all your heart, “oh, what a beautiful road” and a way will appear before you.’ Perhaps when we pay the Earth the compliment of admiring her beauty she responds in kind. She extends us a helping hand.

White Man’s Dreaming?

I know traditional Aboriginal culture is poles apart from the culture of Britain, both two hundred plus years ago and now. But perhaps because of its antiquity, because we humans spent 99% of our evolution as hunter-gatherers, because ancient man and woman lies just beneath the surface of we post-moderns, there may still be lessons for us to learn from them.  Perhaps when children perform the Nativity and take on the roles of Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, angels and kings; perhaps when re-enactors re-enact medieval events such as the Battle of Hastings; perhaps we are doing that same thing the Aborigines do to keep the Dreaming alive – becoming who we were at the beginning of time, albeit mostly in a rather diminished form.

Just before I returned from Australia I came across a book with the title, ‘White Man Got No Dreaming’. It was a brilliant collection of anthropological essays about indigenous Australia by W.E.H. Stanner. The title was a quote from an old Aboriginal man. He could see that whites in Australia had no spiritual connection to the land. We had left the land of our ancestors and were rootless. But it made me think, if there was a ‘white man’s dreaming’, what would it be? So since being back in Britain these last thirty odd years, that’s one of the things I’ve been exploring.

Story and Place

For the last 20 years, my friend Hugh Lupton and I have been delving into what is known as ‘The Matter of Britain’ – the old stories of Britain, from the totemic animals of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers to the late medieval legends of Arthur  – through a series of retreats for storytellers at a writers’ centre in North Wales. Four times our theme has been the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogion’, legends which, though only written down in the 13th century, date back to well before the coming of Christianity, probably before the Romans too. Perhaps the best known of these is the Fourth Branch, the story of ‘Blodeuwedd, the Woman of Flowers’. This tale took place in North Wales and it’s possible to visit the sites named in the original: the hillforts of the wizards Math and Gwydion; the place where Lleu and Blodeuwedd had their hall; the stone with a hole, pierced when Lleu hurled a spear at his rival Gronw. One thing we have found in this extraordinarily rich exploration is that when you tell the story in the place where it is thought to have happened, both the story and the place come alive in a way that is impossible when they’re apart. Telling the story of the place in the place literally invigorates both the teller and, it seems, the place too. Echoes here of the ceremonies the Aboriginal people do to keep the spirit of the Dreaming alive.

Beating the Bounds

A few days ago I came back from a six day walk around Snowdonia. I’ve been writing a book of ‘Snowdonia Folktales’ and I wanted to beat the bounds of my book before writing the introduction. Despite it being November the weather was mostly dry, though because of the short days every evening I was looking for my camping spot in the dark. In this circular walk I wanted to link places that for me have powerful spiritual associations.  Unfortunately I had to omit the walk down the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula to Bardsey and back along the south. It would have taken too long. Another time. Bardsey, or Ynys Enlli, the Island in the Current, was, after all, declared ‘the Rome of Britain’ by Pope Calixtus II in 1120. Twenty thousand saints are supposed to be buried on it. Merlin took the thirteen treasures of Britain there. It’s been a pilgrimage destination for a long time. It’s a very holy place.

Conversing with the Genius Loci

Nonetheless I had a wonderful time walking nearly fifty miles around the mountains of Eryri. The first two days I saw no one. So I spontaneously started talking to the trees, rocks and streams. One tough little hawthorn leaning out from a ledge by the path stopped me in my tracks. Its spiky branches were covered with soft, thick, pale-green lichen. It was small but felt to be hundreds of years old. It was there alone facing a precipitous black crag. I was full of admiration for its perfect form, felt compassion for its struggle, its aloneness. I spoke words of appreciation and respect to it. Of course it said nothing in reply but I experienced a kind of loving communion with it. It was the same a little further as I approached the pass between Moel Hebog and Moel yr Ogof, where Owain Glyndwr – leader of the war of independence in the early 1400s – had sheltered six hundred years before. Suddenly ahead was a mighty dark rock and immediately I saw a face, the head of a sleeping giant. Under his grim gaze I talked to him, asking if he remembered Owain coming down to sit on this grassy bank by this river crossing when his pursuers had departed. Again, a sense of communion. Sometimes I’d come upon a little stream and speak to it affectionately, with gratitude. Making friends with the landscape. Respecting special places. Conversing with the genius loci, the spirit that lies hidden but can be intuited here, there and everywhere.

After coming home I found a friend of mine had written a book with almost that title: ‘The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci’ by Barry Patterson. Highly recommended.

  • He says that although ‘the ancient knowledge (of these islands) maybe lost … the original source material is not some secret medieval fragment, it's the life of rocks, land-forms, forests and fells; pools, rivers, shorelines and skies of Britain!’
  • ‘The art of conversation with the Genius Loci,’ he says, ‘involves mainly one thing: spending … quality time with the threshold brook, in a sense of curiosity and wonder, listening to what it has to tell us and then sharing our feelings - something of what we are - with it… A quiet friendly greeting to the crows on the playing field. A small bow to the big old oak by the side of the road, not in a superstitious way but in a sense of celebration and connection.’
  • ‘In my experience,’ says Barry, ‘Genii Locorum are very sensitive to human beings and many of them actually want to connect with us, even need us. Much can be achieved with a simple gesture from the heart.’

Colin Mortlock, the author of ‘Beyond Adventure’, sums this sentiment up thus: ‘Everything in Nature is alive in its own way… and seeks its well-being.’

Talking with the nature beings you encounter on a walk is a wonderful thing to do and definitely good for the soul!

Dinas Emrys

On any lengthy walk there is always the trudge, the slog of one step after another, the long stretches where not very much changes. Then you go round a bend in the path or over the brow of a hill or maybe you just look up and there it is: a place that has that spirit, a genius loci, something special.

So my trudge finally got me to Dinas Emrys. For me this is the omphalos of North Wales, omphalos being the word Joseph Campbell uses for world navel or sacred centre. It’s probably the remains of an ancient volcano but now is a relatively unobtrusive hill in a valley surrounded by mountains. But it has one of the most extraordinary stories of just about any place in Britain. At its highest point are the foundations of a square tower and below, in a bowl shaped valley, is a rush choked pool and evidence of what looks like a ceremonial landscape. It’s hidden in the heart of the mountains below the summit of Yr Wyddfa, Snowdon, the highest mountain. It seems to have been used, off and on, for nearly two thousand years from the Iron Age to late medieval times. My hunch is that it was a place where the elders of the region came to take council in times of danger. And that it was used for ceremony.

The story in brief is that after the departure of the Romans a usurper king, Vortigern by name, took refuge there and tried to build a tower. But it kept collapsing so, on the advice of an old druid, he sent soldiers looking for a fatherless boy to be sacrificed for the walls to stand firm. They found such a lad in the south and dragged him back to Vortigern’s tumbled tower. But at the crucial moment he broke free from his captors, leapt onto a rock and said: ‘No, this talk of sacrifice is nothing but lies. I’ll tell you why your walls fail to stand.’ For this boy was none other than the young Merlin and he had ‘the sight’. He told them to drain the pool and there they discovered a cavern, revealing two giant worms that soon became serpents and then dragons – one red and the other white. Soon the dragons resumed their eternal combat and when finally they’d chased each other over the horizon and out of view, leaving Vortigern and his men trembling with fear, the young Merlin spoke his first great prophecy.



The Dragon’s are awake,
there is a disturbance in the Land.
The white dragon is the Saxon invader,
the greedy, grasping newcomer.
The red dragon is the people of Britain, the bearers of tradition,
those who have been here since the beginning.
They will chase each other back and forth across this land
until such a time as arises the Boar of Cornwall.
Only then will peace and harmony be restored.
He will be the noblest king,
and tales of his exploits will be as meat and drink
to the storytellers who relate them in ages to come.

But chaos will return
and there will be centuries of destruction
until a people in wood and iron coats
come and restore the ancient ones to their homes.
The eagle shall build its nest on Mount Yr Wyddfa.
Gold shall be squeezed from the lily and the nettle,
silver shall flow from the hooves of bellowing cattle.
From the first to the fourth, the fourth to the third,
the third to the second the thumb shall roll in oil.

Though the Goddess be forgotten
there will come a time of plenty
when the soil will be fruitful beyond man’s need.
The Fatted Boar will proffer food and drink,
the Hedgehog will hide his apples in London.
Underground passages will be built beneath the city.
Stones will speak; the sea to France will shrink
and the secrets of the deep will be revealed.

But beware the Ass of Complacency,
swift against goldsmiths, slow against ravenous wolves.
Oak trees shall burn and acorns grow on lime trees.
The Severn River will flow out through seven mouths.
Fish will die in the heat and from them serpents will be born.
And the health giving waters at Bath shall breed death

Then root and branch shall change place,
And the newness of the thing shall seem a miracle.
The healing maiden will return, her footsteps bursting into flame.
She will weep tears of compassion for the people of the land,
Dry up polluted rivers with her breath,
Carry the forest in her right hand, the city in her left,
And nourish the creatures of the deep.

With her blessing
Man will become like God
Waking as if from a dream:
Heart open and filled with light,
Radiant face, glowing like the rising sun,
Shining eyes, like twin silver moons,
Radiant ears, shimmering with song,
Shining lips, that dance over words,
Words of magic that burst into the air becoming swallows..
The soul shall walk out; the mind of fire shall burn.
And in the twinkling of an eye the dust of the ancients
Shall be restored.

© Eric Maddern

Dinas Emrys has a very strong genius loci. I talk to it like an old friend whenever I’m there. Sometimes I imagine it speaks to me through the sighing of the wind in the trees. As Barry says, I feel it responds to me being there and caring for it. This time, after having come to know so many of the characters of the area through writing ‘Snowdonia Folktales’, I found myself talking to ‘the boys’, the men who used to gather. I wondered what they’d make of the conveniences of modern life – the freeze-dried food, the little gas heater, the ultra-lite tent that keeps out the rain, the thermarest sleeping mat that softens the ground. A mix of wonder and horror I imagined.

Before leaving the next morning I spoke again to the place my version of the prophecy. I imagined the genius loci nodding sagely at: ‘Root and branch shall change places and the newness of the thing shall seem a miracle…’ ‘Time is now, time is now’ squawked the imaginary parrot on my shoulder!

Pass of the Two Stones

Two days walking later and I was ready to begin the trek from Rowen in the Conwy Valley over the Roman Road to Aber Falls. Roman Road is a misnomer, though not surprising, as we love to attribute anything old and impressive to them. But when they found this route through the mountains it was already a well-beaten track. A better name would be Stone Age Way. It’s marked all the way by standing stones. At the eastern end was a settlement with two extraordinary burial chambers, one prominent and called Maen y Bardd (Stone of the Bard), the other hidden and underground. Maen y Bardd has two ‘windows’, one looking east along the coast, the route by which the Romans, Saxons and Normans invaded. The other looks south up the Conwy River, meaning ‘Holy River’, into the mountains, the heartland of the Cymru – always the last refuge of the indigenous people. They are like two eyes keeping watch. The eyes of the dead. A little further up the hill is a stone circle beneath the dramatic craggy summit of Tal y Fan to the north. What a spectacular setting for ceremony. Further up again are two powerful standing stones, which have stood there for many thousands of years. They are the gateway. They mark the threshold between worlds. For not far beyond over the next brow you catch the first glimpse of the island, the dark, mysterious, powerful, magical island of the Druids, Mon, Ynys Mon, now known as Anglesey.

There are no stories of this place. It’s too old. But so many of the characters from ‘Snowdonia Folktales’ must have walked through here. And it’s hardly changed in all that time. Perhaps Taliesin himself, the first poet of Wales, stopped in that burial chamber. After all, why is it called Maen y Bardd, the Poet’s Stone? Maybe he received some of his poems there. The settlement above this place was, I believe, an outlier of the Druids. The gatekeepers lived here.

At the other end of the Old Stone Age Road is Aber Falls. The Falls are a wonder. They must have been sacred to the old people, associated with the goddess Ceridwen perhaps, the water like her white hair flowing over the black shining rock. It’s up a side valley, the way up protected by a series of embankments. There are several hut circles. The last one, within sight of the Falls, is perfect and well defined. Outside seems to be a pile of burnt stones. In the entrance is a trench that may have been a bath. I wonder - were the people who lived here wizards who guarded access to the sacred Falls and conducted purification (sweat lodge type) ceremonies to prepare people for their encounter with the goddess? There are three natural flat stones to stand on and address the Falls. One at first sight, the second much closer, the third right by it. From the top you can look back and just glimpse Ynys Mon through a V in the mountains. Another Druid outlier?

An Earth Walk?

This country is full of amazing places. To finish I’d like to throw out an idea. It was originally cooked up by a few storytellers inspired by the idea of creating a contemporary Canterbury Tales pilgrimage. Now the idea has evolved. Canterbury is a wonderful place but rather out on a limb when you consider Britain as a whole. So how about this? We choose another more central location – Oxford has been suggested, as in the old tale of ‘Llys and Llyfelys’ it is said to be the centre of the country. Seed groups of people – storytellers, musicians, poets, artists and other interested people – set out from points all around the country at more or less the same time (say in May) and walk towards the destination. A bit like walking along the spokes of a wheel towards its hub. Some may just walk for a couple of weekends. Others may walk the whole way. En route we tell each other stories, meet people, listen to their tales, do impromptu performances, all on a broadly defined ‘green theme’.

Imagine dozens of groups threading their way across the country, pied piper like, gathering followers as they go, inspiring creativity and renewed appreciation of nature, place and story. Eventually converging on the destination for a weekend celebration, maybe the autumn equinox.

This idea has been mooted for some time now. It’s a big project to organise and for the two years has been on the backburner. I didn’t know then about the Gatekeeper Trust. Now I do. Maybe this could be a marriage made in heaven!


Sir George Trevelyan was one of the founders of the Gatekeeper Trust. He had a favourite piece of poetry he often quoted. It’s from ‘The Sleep of Prisoners’ by Christopher Fry. I’ve taken the liberty of tweaking a couple of lines.


The human heart may go the lengths of God.
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move.
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to meet us everywhere,
Never to leave us until we take
The greatest stride of soul we ever took.
Affairs are now soul size
The enterprise is exploration into God.
But where are we making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will we wake for the whole Earth’s sake?


In a brainstorm over lunch about the ‘Earth Walk’ Stratford-upon-Avon came up as a favoured focus for the destination of what I’m now starting to think of as ‘The Wheel of Britain Walk’!

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