Cae Mabon is a spiritual retreat centre in North Wales. It nestles on a mountainside, a stream cascading through it from which it gets its water supply. The structures at Cae Mabon are eco-homes in an interesting range of styles, from a Hobbit hole to a reconstructed roundhouse, of which more later. It's a beautiful setting, with a large lake at the bottom of the slope and views across to Mount Snowdon.
We arrived on Friday, April 12th, following a drive through some of the most beautiful scenery in Wales, most memorably the spectacular Llanberis Pass. The 'we' in question were myself, Elaine and my sons, Joe and Mike. Joe is a fine ritualist while Mike, having studied video production, had accepted the task of recording as many of the World Drum events as possible in HD video. Elaine was our driver and chief events coordinator. Also joining us from previous events would be my good friend and BDO stalwart, Steve Rumelhart, musician, Jake Thomas, and Lorraine Munn, organiser of our ceremony at Ironbridge.
The last part of the drive was quite interesting as Elaine negotiated a well-laden Subaru down a very narrow, very winding tarmac track, to one side of which was a precipitous drop down tree-covered slopes towards the lake far below. For one not used to mountain driving, it was … erm … educational. However, we reached the car park safely, as did the rest of our merry band. We unloaded our gear, including, of course, The World Drum, and began the steep trek down to Cae Mabon itself. Slippery from recent rain, one had to watch one's footing, but we made it without mishap and were guided to our accommodation. The brilliant Gillian Kavanagh, organiser of this event, was there to greet us. My sons, Joe and Mike, were to sleep in the roundhouse. Elaine, myself and three other women were to sleep in the Longhouse, which turned out to be basically an extended garden shed but with better insulation, beds and a desk.
Friday evening was spent greeting new arrivals as they came, exploring the site and buildings, discovering the kitchen and socialising. The new arrivals included the BDO's web wonder and all-round genius, Adam Sargant (that's him, far right), accompanied by a new BDO friend generally known as Farmer Jeff, because his name's Jeff, and he's a farmer (that's him, near right - and yes, that's me in the middle). The excellent bard, Barry Patterson, arrived with his partner, Anne, and a range of instruments including several flutes, bagpipes and a drum. Welsh bard, Gwyn Edwards, joined us too, a delightful man and a fount of lore, legend and laughter.
Eric Maddern, the originator of Cae Mabon and its guiding light, treated us to a talk about the place and its history. This took place in the comfortable dining hall, created from the ruins of a former agricultural building. Here an altar was established, decorated with stones and flowers from the area, on which The World Drum was to be placed when not is use. I have to admit, after the experience of soaking the Drum overnight just before setting out for Cae Mabon, I had become more than a little protective of it. It was still very cold and we were instructed to use heating sparingly, which was fine for us but gave me some concerns for the Drum. Hence I put it back in its case and removed it to the Longhouse for the night, reasoning that five sleeping in a small space would generate enough warmth to keep the Drum's skin from losing tension again. This proved correct. However, there was another problem.
I sleep very little anyway and, given the excitement of all the ceremonies and events and the strange surroundings, I found it impossible to sleep at all. Instead, I lay listening to the uncoordinated choir of the differently pitched snores of my companions. Finally, at about 5.30am, I gave up and got up, sneaking out as quietly as possible in the half-light. It was Saturday morning, just about, and we were to travel to Anglesey after lunch for a ceremony at 2pm.
Joining us for lunch and the afternoon ceremony was Caryl Dailey (left), an OBOD Druid and tutor whom I had not previously met. Caryl duly arrived with her friend, Tracy, both beautifully robed and smiling. Caryl turned out to be a bit of a star. She has Sami blood in her ancestry and treated us to a display of joiking, a type of throat-singing practiced by the Sami of Norway that produces some very strange sounds. While Caryl sang in the roundhouse, I was sitting by the central fire with the World Drum held next to me. Whenever she slipped into joiking, the Drum responded, picking up the sound and singing along with her. When she sang with her normal voice at the same or greater volume, nothing. Only when joiking. The Sami are reindeer-herders. The Drum's skin is reindeer. Interesting.
After lunch (the food at Cae Mabon was wonderful), we wended our way back up to the car park and decamped for Anglesey. The significance of Anglesey for Druids is that it was long supposed to have been the site of the Druids' last stand against the Roman legions in 55 CE. The Roman historian, Tacitus, gives a wonderfully vivid description of the event, with the legions formed up on one side of the Menai Strait and the Anglesey side lined with Druids perched on every high point and hurling imprecations into the wind while women clothed in black tatters ran amongst them waving flaming torches and screaming. Eventually, the legions overcome their fears, storm across the Strait, murder everyone on the island and burn down the Druidic shrines they find there. Thus ended Druidry in Britain.
Except, of course, it didn't end. For one thing, Anglesey had then, as it still has now, excellent sea-borne links with Ireland. It would be absurd had not at least some of the Anglesey Druids jumped into boats and high-tailed it across the Irish Sea, or in the other direction to Scotland, depending on the prevailing winds. For another thing, it would have been equally absurd for every Druid in the whole of the British Isles to present themselves conveniently in the same place on the same day so that they could all be conveniently massacred. Add to that the fact that there were a number of British tribes who welcomed the Romans' arrival and it seems very unlikely that the Romans would have repaid their welcome by murdering their Druids.
Our chosen site for the ceremony on Anglesey was the megalithic chambered tomb-shrine of Bryn Celli Ddu, the 'Mound of the Dark Grove,' pronounced something like Brun Kethly Thee. I was happy with the choice, having last visited the Mound almost thirty years ago. It is an unusual site in many ways. Passage graves of this type are generally earlier in date than stone circles. In this case, however, the passage grave, dated circa 2000 BCE, was constructed inside a pre-existing henge and stone circle constructed around a thousand years earlier. It is also unusual amongst British tomb-shrines in having carved decorations on some of its stones, such decorated stones being mainly found in Irish tomb-shrines where they are relatively common. Bryn Celli Ddu's 27-foot long passage is aligned on the sun at Midsummer. Another extremely unusual feature is the free-standing stone pillar that stands inside the central chamber. There has been speculation that this stone is actually part of a petrified tree, or it may have been chosen for this special placing because of its resemblance to a petrified tree. That's Barry playing his pipes next to that very stone pillar.
We crossed the Britannia Bridge onto Anglesey and turned left towards our destination. Parking nearby, we walked along field edges until we reached the site. With its surrounding bank and ditch, it is an impressive site. The obvious place to old the ceremony was the flat area between the henge ditch and the Mound. I took the World Drum in its case and laid it at the approximate centre of what was to be our circle. While waiting for the rest of our party to arrive, I stood looking around at the place, my mind idling. My eyes were drawn back to the grassy area where the ceremony would be held and I saw beneath the grass the pattern of a huge serpent. Now snakes are very important in Druidry, which has its own equivalent of the Kundalini serpent of Hindu yoga and also sees earth energies as serpents or dragons, so this vision seemed to bode well.
When about 50 people had arrived, I joined Caryl, Elaine and others to talk about what we were going to do in the ceremony. I had wondered if Caryl might have some firm plan for the rite. I needn't have worried. As with the other World Drum rites, she was happy to start off and see where spirit took us. Our 'plan,' such as it was, included a short introduction to the World Drum, a reading of Morten Wolf Storeide's 'Speech for Mother Earth,' and then for Lorraine, as she had before, to carry the Drum around the circle for everyone to play. Caryl would open the circle and Elaine might recite the ancient Greek 'Hymn to Gaia,' a beautiful piece of liturgy. Our Welsh bard, Gwyn, would speak a piece of Druid liturgy in its original language and in English. And that's pretty much what happened.
The end of the rite, however, took me by surprise. Caryl gathered everyone together for a hokey-cokey, which was followed by a serpent-dance, beginning just where I'd seen my serpent vision in the grass, snaking away around the Mound and returning to its starting point. Serpent energy. Yes! And the drummers, as drummers will, played on throughout.
It was a good, energised and energising rite, lighting up the place literally and metaphorically as the sun broke through and smiles broke out.
Another surprise was looking to the top of the Mound and seeing there my old friend, Andy Letcher, and his wife, Nomi. This was slightly surreal, since I had last seen them a couple of weeks earlier when they had unexpectedly appeared at our ceremony at Avebury. At Bryn Celli Ddu, they had at least known that a ceremony was due to take place on Anglesey, though they had not known the venue and had made an educated guess. We arranged to meet up again, making sure we wouldn't miss each other by not telling each other where we'd be.
After the ceremony, many of us went into the chamber inside the mound, taking the World Drum and other drums, while Barry took his pipes. I caught the end of the session in the Mound, and it was good.
Having slept hardly at all the night before, I decided to try spending the night in the roundhouse with my sons. Not having bedding or a sleeping bag with me, I figured I'd be OK in my thick woolly Druid robe with my wolfskin cloak over me. Of course, what I hadn't allowed for was that this was the night North Wales would be hit by storm force winds of up to 75 mph and torrential rain.
The doorway of the Cae Mabon roundhouse has a heavy woollen blanket hung across it. As the winds rose, this heavy blanket was, at times, stretched out parallel to the ground. Meanwhile, the flames of the central fire, which I was keeping fed to try and maintain a reasonable temperature, were being swung wildly around, sending sparks flying towards the straw-bales placed near the fire as seating. The Cae Mabon roundhouse has a stone wall. The roof poles are rested on top of that wall, the thatch applied on top of the poles. However, the gap between the top of the wall and the thatch has not been filled, therefore the furious winds were blowing into the roundhouse from all sides. Candle lanterns, fortunately not lit, were blown over. Luckily, the sofas and armchair on which Joe, Mike and I were trying to sleep were below the level of the top of the wall and, therefore, sheltered from the worst of the wind. On the other hand, we were not protected from the sound of the wind which roared around us all night with a noise like an express train passing a few feet away. I had not heard winds like it since the night of the famous hurricane of 1987. Needless to say, I did not sleep.
On Sunday morning there were more opportunities to talk. Barry and I, as bards will, fell into comparing our various flutes and talking music. There was a final lunch, followed by a farewell ceremony with the Drum, and then it was back up the path for the long drive back to Wildways, passing once more across the beautiful Llanberis Pass.
Before we left, Cae Mabon held one last bit of magic for me. As mentioned, Mount Snowdon is visible from Cae Mabon. Mount Snowdon is the home of the four storm-bringing eagles who are depicted on my drum. Just before we left, I stepped off on my own and found a suitable perch from which to view the mountain. I wanted to re-connect with my eagle companions. It had been a while. Facing the mountain across the lake, I raised my arms from my sides and spread them as wings. Without even thinking about it, I found my spirit soaring across the waters of the lake in eagle form and heading for the clouds that wreathed the mountain-top. There I found my eagle companions and greeted them. I took a moment to enjoy wheeling around the mountain with them, then broke away to return to Cae Mabon and my body. I knew that my companions would be anxious to be underway. It was a beautiful, magical moment and I give thanks to the spirits.
Barry has written a beautiful poem/song about our time at Cae Mabon and Anglesey, which is available online as a rather lovely sound file on which Barry plays the World Drum and his lilting bagpipes while the sound of the Cae Mabon stream rushes along and he speaks/sings his words. The text is on the same page, and you can find both at http://www.redsandstonehill.net/2013/04/world-drum-at-cae-mabon.html
As ever, the photos here are by Elaine Gregory, aka Elaine Wildways.