from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?


– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.


Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.


Roselle Angwin

Saturday, 18 June 2016

poetry, place & pilgrimage: pagans, saints & mermaids


We all gather in sunshine. The sea yesterday was doing her best to look innocent and benign, lolling blue and lovely off Cape Cornwall. When we actually go to walk the Cape, however, on our first silent walk, a few clouds have slid in from the Atlantic, and there’s a wind. Unusually for this area, we have quite a few grey days, which do nothing to change the magic; if anything, it's more atmospheric.

I’m delighted to be leading a course down here in my ancestral lands, and at the fine Boswedden House, finally; been plotting it for years.

As always with my courses, this one is holistic; so words are both exploratory tools and means of expression of our experience.

We don’t begin until late lunchtime, and somehow I manage to cram the first half-day full – a taste of things to come. (One of the lessons that I come away with is, as I always say in relationship to writing poetry in my groups, ‘less is more’. I need to remember and trust this.)






We are a group of eight people, writers in transit; some I know, some know each other, most don’t. We’re divergent in age and as personalities, and between us represent three continents and four countries; six, if you include Wales and Cornwall (I do). I look around the group, and despite the fact that we’re all so disparate, I know it’s going to work. 


I’m also delighted to be using my campervan again as my own accommodation, windows open to the deep shush of the sea at this point where the Atlantic splits into the Bristol/Irish Channel and the English Channel. Other than that, it’s only a pair of crows nesting in the fir behind me, and various songbirds that I hear. Oh and a distant donkey. When I slide into bed that first night it’s with a deep sense of contentment and satisfaction.

I have a full agenda of walking the ancient and sacred sites and cliffs, story, poetry and writing to deliver. Early on, though, I realise that we simply are not going to be able to include all the sites I want us to visit as inspiration for developing relationship with and writing about the land. Apart from anything else, the weather, after days or weeks of sunshine, turns cold, wet and changeable, and my ‘agenda’ of course has to bow to the elements. And it seems no one is especially keen to walk far in the rain – how can that be??– despite my fierce warnings that we would be out in all weathers. And – how can this be? – I’m glad of the excuse.


Also early on I notice, as I half-expected and as frequently happens on residential retreats I lead in Europe’s ‘thin places’, edgelands, that there is likely to be a fair amount of emotional upheaval followed by healing happening for people on the course.

This is not a deliberate intention of mine, but when you put people together with others in a situation that is inspiring, emotionally intense, safe and supportive and involves engaging with the inspiration, deep wisdom and mystery of the land and their own soulwork, things bubble to the surface. 






In addition, people come to realise that their ostensible reason for coming on the course (writing in a beautiful place) is by no means the only thing that has brought them here, and they feel safe enough to allow deeply-buried feelings and new insights to emerge. The core Self can become more visible. So catharsis happens.

There is laughter. There are tears. There is transformation, and innovative exciting writing. I am very glad that I’ve had the four-year psychotherapeutic training, plus further CPD, that I have, and that I have had my own intensive therapy. I wouldn’t consider doing this work without it.

As for the outdoor work, I ask people to look, listen, consider, observe and imagine like poets; notice the details that others might not; find surprising ways to write about our encounters, whether with the ordinary or the unexpected.

Of course, as I might expect, a very short walk takes a relatively long time; and since we’re walking in silence and everywhere we walk there is much of interest and much to notice, there’s a great deal to write about.

We stop and gaze at the extravagantly-flowered stone walls, the edible samphire bursting from crevices (also to be tasted), the little originally-4th-century-and-probably-on-an-older-site St Helen’s Oratory perched above the cliffs.

We stop for a minute to watch the local fisherman who’s just landed the catch that the fish-eaters amongst us will eat for supper dragging his red boat up the slipway to attach to his red Land Rover, having thrown the young fish back to a cluster of gulls.

At the Cape I mention that, bar the Scillies off a little to the south of us, and the lost lands of Lyonesse, of course, there is nothing between us and America, which stimulates a flood of writing in the strong breeze.

Over the course of these days we will visit the local holy wells of Sancreed, possibly a Christianised corruption of (Saint) Cerridwen, and St Euny, with their cloutie trees: hung with offerings to the spirit of the well, and sometimes in supplication for healing, the trees, usually hawthorns, are gaudily bedecked as they will have been, one way or another, over centuries and possibly millennia.

We’ll spend a blissful gentle hour or two writing in the Iron Age ‘courtyard village’ of Carn Euny with its glimpse of the sea, also on an older site.

We’ll walk out to Men an Tol, the famous holed stone noted for fertility rituals and general healing (you need to pass through the hole three, or maybe nine, times in deference to the Goddess whose numbers are three and nine – that’s for another posting).


I remind people that fertility is not just for youngsters: crones and middle-aged men too are fertile (ie creative), just on a more subtle level than the physical. The group gamely clambered through, some more enthusiastically than others, but I noticed that when we all decided to recline on the warm turf around the stones, a deep deep peace washed through us all, followed by an uprise in energy and creative expression.

By the end of these few days, our notebooks are full.

We don’t make Caer Bran, an earthwork I’m particularly fond of, though I do tell them the story of Bran, the Raven/Crow god of the Celts.

At Zennor, I tell everyone the story of the Mermaid of Zennor, and show them the late mediaeval pew; speak of how the symbols of wisdom and the Goddess, the moon (or perhaps love apple) and lyre or zither have become degraded into symbols of vanity, the mirror and the comb.


Another day we walk the coastpath past the astonishing prehistoric Ballowall Barrow to Porth Nanven. Some say that the name is a corruption, or possibly an older form, of my surname; my family has come from this area in the very far west from forever. We stop to picnic on 'dinosaur-egg beach', footing the sub-tropical Cot Valley, with its huge creamy rounded boulders, and the glass-green sea just barely rolling its waves dreamily back and forth on the white sand beyond the boulders. It’s mesmerising and soothing.


And then - well, that's for the next post. 



NEXT YEAR'S COURSE is slightly longer, and has morphed into 'THE LAND'S WILD MAGIC: poetry, place & story', as this small area is so rich in tales of the earth. You can see details here.













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