One of the best books I have ever read, one of only two I have read more than once, is Sharon Penman’s historical novel about the submission of Wales to the English: Here Be Dragons.
I loved this book so much, that when I finished it I lay in bed staring at the ceiling for a week, in mourning for the company of its central characters, Johanna and Llewellyn.
She, Johanna, was the bastard daughter of King John; he, Llewellyn, was the Welsh king. Here Be Dragons is the story of a man’s fight for the independence of his small world and freedom for the myriad folk who people its forests.
So you can imagine my excitement when my friend Viv, with whom I am staying in London, suggested we go visit her friend Jo (Joanna, as it happens) in Wales
We packed our picnic and drove west – three hours from the English capital puts us at the border, where the road demands a six pound toll, through which we enter a bilingual world. We had booked a room at Abergavenny, because we liked the sound of the name and it is on the River Usk (which appealed to Viv because the hysterically funny Australian comedy trio The Kransky Sisters comes from Usk – but really I think she means Esk, which is in Queensland).
We sit on our balcony dipping carrot sticks into our homemade babaganoush, toasting the river and the mountains that nudge the grey sky beyond.
“Usk and you shall receive,” says Viv.
“What more can you Usk for?” I reply.
In the morning I had kippers for breakfast, a foodstuff I have only previously met in English novels. And as we checked out, I asked the woman behind the counter where Powys might be – for Powys was the beating heart of Llewellyn’s kingdom.
“Here,” she said.
“It’s not so much a place as a general area.”
My heart took a little leap, my feet a little jump.
Viv and I spent all day criss crossing Bannau Brycheiniog, the Brecon Beacons, a national park of mountains, villages, farms, moorlands and small forests. I spent the day imagining a less English world. No matter how old or quaint the villages, I saw only the English colonisers; no matter how bare the forests, I saw only thick unbreachable trees concealing blue bowmen in the shadows.
I bow my head to Llewellyn, my lord and king. And say a prayer for what is lost. (Novels have that kind of effect on me.)
Llewellyn ap Fawr, Llewellyn the Great.
The forests around me are so diminished I am scouring blades of grass for signs of the Welsh; the English villages so prolific I can hear only the stampede of English horsemen. For the Welsh – who were not one people but a collective group of allsorts – did not live in villages; so even the oldest village in Wales, Merthyr Tydfil, does not impress me (although it would on the other side of the border).
I am surprised by the pain in my heart for this lost world, whose name for itself is Cymru.
The rain comes and goes all day, interspersed with small showers of sunshine. We decide to walk to a waterfall, first eating our picnic in the car away from the hammering rain. As it clears we pull on our jackets; we slip past a stone sentry onto a forest path that follows a small, tumbling river, and walk deeper, deeper into the forest.
The air is damp, fresh. The green of the forest is startlingly clean. The wetness of the summer past has snapped healthy trees like matchsticks. The river flows sideways as it roars through tumbling rocks. I duck up a steep embankment onto a shelf of yellow grasses, and breathe the stillness of the pocket of scattered trees surrounding me. I squat to pee, the warm liquid of my body pouring into the body of the Earth. This sensation has never ceased to give me a secret sacred spiritual pleasure, an initiation of sorts, an almost pagan rite that deepens my connection to land and life and tunes my senses to my world. I know, most of you think I’m nuts. But really, there are women who know what I mean; we are the ones who offer our bleeding to the Earth – it’s true, we do. Or did. I know not who they are for the most part, for we are scattered like seeds in the wind, but I know we exist. They must, because I do.
And that’s when I glance up and see signs of Ariadne at the mouth of a small cave, a perfect silver web stretched wall to wall, guardian to the dark and damp, food trap for a deified spider.
I slide back down to the river and we walk on, deeper and deeper into the forest. We feel the waterfall before we see it, like thunder
in the Earth it rattles the blood in our feet, pounds with the rhythm of our hearts. The waterfall is small and sturdy, white streaked with brown, a powerful rush of strength. We sit on a rock and watch awhile. We climb up to the source, watch the water and all it carries flow unhesitantly over the edge.
For two days we laugh and play and explore Wales: the high moors, bleak and beautiful, with their coloured grasses and sheep and Welsh ponies; the old castle ruins high on a hilltop at Cennen Cerreg; the towns with
names so unpronounceable we practically wet ourselves because I am navigating and doing my best to tell Viv to turn right at PWYLLDDSCHNYLLSNDDLLPWYD (yeah, okay, I made that up); the sweet ocean and small beaches either side of the tor at Dinas; my conversation with the barista at Abergavenny who insisted on putting coffee in my soy chai latte because that’s what latte is; the burial chamber we didn’t visit because we ran out of time.
Cymru. I am surprised that the Welsh do not know much about Llewellyn, not much at all, although one man could tell me where his dog was buried – yet I am also pleased to find, a thousand years on, he is a shadow, a presence, a memory they must blink to recollect.
A strength that walks beside them.