Beyond The Border Wales International Storytelling Festival

I really enjoyed meeting Nikky and being interviewed by her. A lovely human with amazing energy, I look forward to hearing much more of her story in future….


I attended and performed at Beyond The Border Wales International Storytelling Festival and created a plenary poem capturing soundbites and the atmosphere. There was an eclectic mix of narrative performance explored through live music, literature and traditional storytelling.

Beyond The Border celebrates the finest musicians and storytellers from Wales and the World, including Sweden, Finland, Italy, India, Belgium, Norway and Palestine….

Expect fables and myths, music and magic, love stories and laughter, fun and games for children and fairy tales for grown-ups, all in the beautiful grounds of our castle by the sea.

I managed to have a chat with legendary storyteller Taffy Thomas MBE, the mysterious illustrator Katherine Soutar and the magical Tinc Y Tannau. Take a listen to the audio interviews, the poem I created and join the conversation…


Photos include Taffy, Katherine, Tinc Y Tannau and the festival…

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Desert ramblings, inspirations and invitations

As some of you may have already noticed I am very fond of Morocco…

Since my first visit in 2015 I have returned many times to this beautiful, vibrant and friendly country. Most often travelling to the deep Sahara in the south to spend time with my Saharaoui friends camping, camel trekking and learning about nomad traditions and culture.

I have also spent time collecting stories, sharing my art and making paintings, sketches and photographs for an illustration project I am working on, which hopefully will one day become a dual language book.

Another abiding passion of mine is the study of natural history. As a child I went everywhere armed with a net, a plastic box and a copy of ‘The young naturalist’in the hope of finding something new I could take home and identify ( my very patient Mum could tell you some stories about my adventures…the wardrobe of flies…the bucket of toads…the paint tin of dragonfly nymphs….I was a one child biblical plague at times!) 

I now take only my camera, which is better for the wildlife, for me and certainly for those I share a house with…and spending so much time in the desert has given me the opportunity to rediscover that childhood joy and wonder at seeing new wild things for the first time. Taking so many photographs has also led to me thinking about them as more than just source material for illustrations or an aid to identifying wildlife or plants and I have become interested in them in their own right. So I was delighted when one of my desert photographs was selected to appear in the beautiful book of Celtic and Arabian stories and photographs produced by the confluence  group. (You can learn more about them here
 It was taken at a nomad camp I visited in Chegaga in April 2017

The book also features my first original story, The fox and the moon, which I wrote after seeing a wild Fennec for the first time.
I love this wild and beautiful place and have enormous respect for the people who live there and know so much about its moods, it’s landscape and its inhabitants large and small. Walking and camel riding through this stunning wilderness then camping under the stars and waking in the soft light of dawn to find the tracks of Jerboa, Fennec fox and scarab criss crossing the dunes until they are smoothed away by the morning breezes is a very special experience.

I wanted to be able to share this with like minded souls so together with my friends there I have set up a small family run desert tour company so we can give people the chance to experience the desert first hand. 

If you would like to travel with us to the desert to share these moments, looking for the flick of a sandfish diving into the dunes, listening to the soft plopping of camel feet across the sand and watching the magic that is the creation of sandbread, at which my friends are experts, you can! 

Go over to to  check out what we can offer. For artists and photographers the desert is an exciting source of inspiration and focus and I am happy to provide art tutorial by prior arrangement, just bring along your sketchbook and sense of wonder.

Morocco Art Escapes

This May I am bringing together two things that are very special to me, sharing my skills and love of art and my deep affection for Morocco. By accepting an invitation to teach on Art escapes organised by the brilliant Karima Rebecca Powell of

This May 26th you can join us on the first of these in Marrakech, the stunning high Atlas Mountains and Essaouira to soak up the beauty, art and culture of Morocco. Karima lives in the mountains and is an expert at hosting groups as well as being a talented pastel artist in her own right. 

All levels are welcome, whether you are a  beginning artist or experienced in drawing, sketching and painting. The emphasis will be on exploring new places and enjoying making art. The art that is produced over the week will be a reflection of your experiences in this beautiful place, like a personal journal. This art escape is aimed at those who love discovering new places, who love art, culture and history and who are curious about exploring their creativity in a new environment. I will be introducing you to working with mixed media and handprinting techniques as well as my own approach to watercolours and inks. We will work at your pace with as much support and feedback as each individual needs and wants. 

Our first and last nights will be spent in this beautiful hotel near the medina in Marrakech

And  our home in the mountains for 6 nights is

For your information; below is what is included and not included in our first retreat which runs from 26th May to 3rd June 2018

Price: € 950. (850 British Pounds)
Sharing some love.. Sign up and pay your deposit of € 250 (£220) before February 28th and avail of the early bird price of € 875. (£766).

All Deposits must be paid by March 30th. 
Minimum participation 6 people, maximum 10.

Deposits are payable directly to Katherine:  … the remainder is payable in cash on arrival to Karima. Please check the exchange rate on the day as it varies daily. We accept sterling, euros and dollars. 

* Airport transfers in Marrakech on arrival to the old Medina.

* Accommodation with breakfast in a spa hotel based on 2 people sharing a twin room for one night. Dinner in the Medina on the first night .

* Medina tour in Marrakech with a local guide. Entry fees included. Visit of gardens.

* Transport to Imlil in the mountains.

* 6 nights accommodation in a guesthouse full board based on 2/3 people sharing a twin or triple room. 

* Bottled water with meals.

* Workshops with Katherine during the 5 days. Materials that she provides.

* Lunch in a local Berber house.

* Options for local walks with Karima.

* Time out to rest, work, explore…

* Day trip to Essaouira.

* Last night in Marrakech in spa hotel with breakfast 

* Airport Transfers in Marrakech for departures.
Not Included

* Lunch on the day of the Medina tour.

* Lunch on the day trip to Essaouira.

* Soft drinks.

* Tips for staff, guides etc.

* Flights.

* Insurance.
Henna can be arranged for the ladies and we may ask some local musicians to come one of the nights.

Please contact Katherine for a list of recommended materials to bring for the workshops and let her know your level of experience to help her structure the week to suit all participants.
Please contact Karima for anything related to Morocco.

Please inform us of dietary requirements, allergies or preferences…vegetarian pescatarian etc.

Please let Karima have your flight arrival and departure details as soon as you have booked.

Please note; while we encourage you to take photographs, we ask that you respect local culture, always ask permission, and never take pictures of people in particular women unless they agree, most mountain women do not want their images on the internet.. that applies to video also. Drones are illegal in Morocco unless you are a media company with special permissions. This retreat falls during the month of Ramadan, it means it should be nice and quiet and will not affect our program. Meals will be prepared as normal. Please respect the times of prayer for the locals as they will not always be available and also may sleep during the afternoon. Karima will be on hand to take care of you.

Painting the Tales, the book has landed! (Well…almost) 

I sometimes google my own name to see if I have been up to anything interesting, or more accurately to see just what info about me is floating around out there in the ether… And that is how I discovered yesterday morning that my first book is now available for pre-order. 
After the mild panic of completing the manuscript and submitting it only a little later than the rather short deadline ( when they asked me how I needed, I blithely told them 3 months, having never written a book before, and they took me at my word…) There has been a month or so of wondering whether I had perhaps imagined the whole thing. But then there it was, on two well known bookselling sites. 
I sat and stared at the screen for a few minutes, zooming in on the word ‘author’ a couple of times and tittering nervously to myself before the fear kicked in… People were actually going to read my writerly scribblings….Was anyone going to like my writerly scribblings? I got out the manuscript ( yes, a printed copy, I am never totally trustful of sticks and clouds and other nature related names for tech storage) fingered it briefly, grimaced, put it away again. I can’t bear to look at the moment. 
So I will wait until June 1st, and read it along with everyone else. In the meantime if you would like to pre-order direct from me please email me
I will sign it for you (and dedicate it too if you like) and the first 100 copies I send out will also include some extra little surprises, 

2018 Calendar

These are now available to buy, £15.50 each plus £3 p+p in UK ( please email for postal rates to overseas destinations) 

A selection of my favourite work from the past year with some old favourites for company, long format calendars. 16 x 43 cm with plenty of space to write. Signed on the back by request.  please email for details of how to order 

The Burn

My Son is a writer and was invited to write a piece set in the weirdly marvellous world of Hopeless Maine created by Tom and Nimue Brown. This fiercely visceral and oddly tender tale is the result. I love it. Check out the other fabulous writings on this site and Tom’s brilliant illustrations.

The Hopeless Vendetta

A midnight stroll, paddling. The water is strange here, but I am stranger. It hisses from me as I wet my ankles, as it rises past my calves, vapour twisting into odd shapes that silently howl and disappear. I am almost up to my waist, but I am yet alight, flames submerged in elemental paradox. Small wisp-like things pretending to be fish play about down there, darting from the heat.
It is dark, but I don’t fear it. I provide my own light. This little bay all to myself, illuminated. I drag fingers through the shallows, little more than bone already, creepers of muscle. I look up at the moon with sockets almost vacant. My companion. My challenger. Does it seem different, here? Or have I merely spent so long inspecting its surface that I have begun to create the things I see?
And now, that familiar prickling on the…

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Giving back- working with the Vilostrada foundation


Some of you will know that I spend as much time as I can in the Moroccan Sahara, a place I have come to love very much and been inspired by. I have benefited a great deal both personally and creatively from my time there… 

This is a chance for me to benefit the people there in return.

This mixed media portrait of a little girl who is dear to my heart, Najwa, has been printed as a charity card and is available to buy direct from me.

25% of each sale goes direct to the Vilostrada foundation, who work with nomads in the Moroccan Sahara supporting their way of life and helping provide opportunities for sustainable futures  through their ‘education for life! project.

Here is a link to their blog with a little write up about my involvement.

And a link to their site for more info:

Any remaining monies after costs are paid will go directly to Najwa and her family, this card is all about giving back, every penny will count.

The cards are £3 each plus postage, please contact me to buy by emailing me at with ‘Najwa’ as the subject.

I am looking for other ways to use my skills to make a difference for a people and place that I love. So watch this space xxx

Thank you 🙂🙂

Cover stories – She who knits the world’s green cloth

The story behind the cover art for Ruth Marshall’s Limerick Folk tales

‘A great queen, at other times Áine seems to be a young girl or an old woman. She is a lover, a rape survivor, a mermaid, mother of a poet, the woman who knits, the cailleach. She is a true goddess, and her presence can still be felt in the landscape, in the air, in the names given to landscape features’

When I came across this passage in the Limerick folk tales text I knew she had to be the subject of my cover illustration. She is every woman. She is also for me an image of my mother, who I remember knitting in the evenings when i was small, her long dark hair in bunches and her feet folded neatly underneath her in an armchair. That subtle but continuous clicking of the needles as she knitted for my younger sisters. I never became a knitter, my skills lie in weaving my dreams in pencils and paint but I still find the image of a woman knitting an evocative one and the idea of there being so much power in such a gentle process is one I am incredibly drawn to. As I dreamed and doodled, wondering how my knitting goddess should look, I received a message from the books author expressing the hope that I would choose this story for the cover image…

For me words conjure images which in turn conjure words… and so I was also  reminded of this beautiful poem by Tom Leonard

In Hospital

I like seeing nurse Frieda knitting
As I like watching my wife knitting
As I like watching my mother knitting
Though she was more of a dabbler
(Plain and purl, plain and purl)

It’s not

‘Women being in their place’


The future, knitting the future
The present peaceful, quiet
As if
The same woman knitting
For a thousand years

As soon as I mentioned on social media that I was interested in photos of people knitting to use as resource material the response was amazing, I received dozens of pictures of exquisitely busy hands and although none that were quite what I was after, I suddenly became aware of the love and enthusiasm so many felt for this gentle art… I did find some very evocative pictures of ‘knitting Madonnas’ on the net though and knew I was looking for something that had the same sort of feel…

Then I came across this image below on my wanderings. Something about this pose, the shape of the face and the absorbed quality of the whole reminded me of the paintings of the knitting Madonnas I had encountered earlier and made it a perfect starting point


My knitter went through a few different ideas about hair…I have a bit of a thing for hair and what it does in my images matters very much to me…


In this image it needed to float about her somehow as if she were sitting below water and it just grew and grew until it became a very dominant feature, but that worked well when the rest of the painting was done as it was a great foil to the potentially overwhelming greenness of the whole.

The animals emerged from the background as I began to paint, the whale being the only one I had planned in my head before starting and the deer, frog and butterfly emerging last. They grew from the cloth as I painted in almost the same way they grew from her knitting.



 Here is Ruth’s full introduction to the knitter and her story…

Áine is one of the oldest of the gods. She was/is a goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, and the land of Munster was her sacred ground. She oversaw the fertility, prosperity of the land and its inhabitants. Tuatha Dé Danaan means the people of the goddess Danu, and some scholars claim that Áine may be the same as Ana, Anu, or Danu. Perhaps she was the mother of this race of gifted craftspeople, seen as gods, and later to become the Sidhe or Fairies. Hers was the sovereignty of Munster, hers to confer on any man who sought to rule there. It is easy to see Áine as the sun, the light that sparkles on the waters of Lough Gur, the enlivened air. Her name means ‘delight, joy, radiance, harmony, truth, brightness’.
The wild herb, meadowas Áine’s plant. Also known as ‘queen of the meadow,’ meadowsweet has healing powers, containing in its leaves a substance that relieves headaches, inflammation and many other complaints. Its flowers are light and airy, and as the name suggests, they fill the air with their scent in late summer, the time of harvest.

A great queen, at other times Áine seems to be a young girl or an old woman. She is a lover, a rape surviver, a mermaid, mother of a poet, the woman who knits, the cailleach. She is a true goddess, and her presence can still be felt in the landscape, in the air, in the names given to landscape features.



She Who Knits the World’s Green Cloth

Beneath the enchanted waters of Lough Gur, there grows an ancient and enormous tree, concealed beneath a green cloth. Beneath the green cloth (brat ‘uÁine) a woman sits at the base of the tree. She is knitting with a green yarn, the fabric of the world, and will continue to do this until the end of the world, or until the enchantment on the lake is broken. Once every seven years, when the waters of the lake recede, the tree and its covering are revealed.
One day when the waters of the lake were low, there came a horseman riding by. Seeing the green cloth, so fine and beautiful, he snatched it up, revealing the knitting woman beneath it. She cried out to the waters of the lake:

Awake, awake, thou silent tide!
From the Dead Woman’s land a horseman does ride,
From my head the green cloth snatching.

As she spoke, the waters of Lough Gur began to rise. The rider kicked his horse into action and raced off, but the waters came leaping and foaming behind him. Horse and rider were swept into the lake and were lost beneath its waves. The green cloth slowly drifted down through the water until it came to rest once more over the tree and the knitting woman.
Some say that had the cloth been stolen, the fertility of the land would have been destroyed.
In our own time, where soil and crop fertility is sorely threatened, not by horsemen riding by, but by man-made causes ranging from artificial fertilisers, the death of bees, genetic manipulation, and climate change, perhaps we should all be taking up our knitting needles and green yarn to help ‘knit the world better!’ Áine urges us to join her, to do what we can to re-create the green fabric of life.
Today there is a large stone called the Cloch a bhile, which means the ‘stone of the tree’, not far from the great stone circle at Lough Gur.

and finally…

This is cover story was one where the collaboration in spirit between author and artist was instant, Ruth and I have never met and until I started to write this blog had only had a few small exchanges with each other, but she has sent me this contribution which I am pleased to share with you here:

Knitting the world better – a brief personal history in wool and words

I have been a sporadic knitter all my life, my most recent return to knitting inspired partly by my Son’s requests for useful items and love tokens for his girlfriend.

Then on a visit to family in Scotland I saw an exhibition of Donna Wilson’s quirky knitted work in Glasgow’s Lighthouse gallery. Odd creatures and landscapes included the squirrel-fox and trees. I wrote in the visitor’s book, “Knit the World Better!” When I got home, this became a slogan I signed my emails with.

I waxed lyrical about wool as metaphor for the creative process. I got smelly Shetland fleeces from an artist on the Burren, carded and spun them into yarn, in the same way that I draw ideas down from the clouds and spin them into stories to tell. I knitted sheelagh-na-gigs and gnomes. I gave workshops on ‘how to knit the world better for ourselves and others’. I found traditional stories that featured balls of yarn, seamless garments, knitting women. On the isle of Colonsay, I heard about the Witch of Jura, who could draw any man into her arms by winding up her magical ball of wool.
Some of these woolly tales turn up in my books for The History Press’s Folk Tales series.
In Clare Folk Tales, I included the story of an old woman, angry to be disturbed at her knitting, who pierced the ground with her knitting needle, causing a spring to burst forth, that became Inchiquin lake. A warning: you should never disturb a woman at her knitting!
Researching for Limerick Folk Tales, I found reference to a knitting woman who sits at the base of a tree submerged beneath Lough Gur, at the heart of a magical sacred landscape. I thought of her as “She who knits the earth’s green cloth” and I identified strongly with her at this time when we must be so conscious to reweave the threatened web of life, the torn fabric of society. When the text of the book was finished, I drew so many version of this image. I knew what story I wanted to see featured on the cover, and requested that Katherine portray “She Who Knits”. I knew she would do this beautifully, and I was not disappointed, she had already found the passage and become enchanted with it.

My own knitting story continues: there is an endless thread, a red thread I like to think, that connects us, and leads the way forward.
I will always welcome more stories, from anywhere around the world, that feature knitters, wool, yarn, etc.

Ruth Marshall 2017

Ruth also sent me several lovely poems, one of which I would like to share with you, enjoy.


At sixteen
I wore a purple wool jumper
The way Pablo Neruda wore his hand knit socks
With a reverence
for the unknown hands that clicked the needles
And a love for the rich deep colour of the wool
From the purple sheep that dwelt in the fairyland dusk
I witnessed only through the haze of smoke.

And there was no risk of saving it for best
For it was all I could bear to wear
for months
while the sleeves wore thin
and my mother sewed leather patches
on the elbows for me
just as she sewed the hems
I had no patience to take up
on skirts I made from curtains snatched at jumble sales.

I knitted socks and gloves,
colourful and Fair-Isled, on four needles
at the interminable meetings of my twenties
in wholefood shops, back rooms and basements
through talk of poetry, brown rice and disarmament;
and sweaters for my lover,
full of spells and symbols,
through northern winters warmed by blackcurrant wine,
that his next girlfriend wore
with love.

By the time my son arrived
The auntie who knitted shawls
Fine enough to pull through a wedding ring
Had knobbly twigs for hands and clouded eyes.
Gifted a lambskin for his bed,
I made vests, jumpers, hats, shoes, blankets
And wrapped him in the warmest woolly love.

Though moths and time unravel the finest work
I have learned the magic that transforms
the dung-caked fleece to pure cream yarn.
Now, when I have carded, spun and washed,
I knit my own tiny woollen sheep.

Ruth Marshall, October 2003 : “Ruth Marshall Writes” on Facebook
Email: ruth.a.marshall at

Cover stories – The making and unmaking of the woman of flowers



The illustration above is part of the repeating owl pattern on the famous owl service dinner set, examples of which are rather rare…

When I started to read the manuscript for Snowdonia Folk Tales I did something I often do if the author is someone I am in contact with and sent Eric a message asking if he had any preferences as to what the cover story might be. He was busy and didn’t reply for some time.

In the meantime I read through the book and found the story of Blodeuwedd, one that I already had a familiarity and fascination with as I had read The Owl service by Alan Garner when I was young. I also watched the excellent TV adaptation, scripted by Garner himself, when it was repeated in 1978, I would have been 15 then and at an age when it was to make a lasting impression on me.

Her story is of course part of the wonderful epic tale of the Mabingion, but I am not going to go into that here. This is her story.

I wanted to work with this story very much, I felt a connection with not only the woman of flowers but also my own teenage self that could be expressed through this image.

I started to make sketches, trying to work out how to depict the flower and owl aspects of a character I felt was more sinned against than sinning. This was a grown woman released upon the world fully formed and filled with desires and feelings she had no experience of coping with as she had not been through the process of growing from a child to an adult. A woman created for a purpose she had no choice about. She was made from wild things and then expected to be tame.

While I was trying to find the face of my woman of flowers Eric replied to my message, suggesting her story would be a good one to choose. I love it when this happens, and it has happened several times with this series.

I didn’t want to make an image melding the woman and owl aspects together into one character. I had seen many of these and somehow they seemed a little brutal to me, I almost felt that although her transformation is a punishment it is also the moment she is set free, back into the wild and able to express herself without regret.

The fact that she becomes an owl particularly, a creature throughout history and across many cultures regarded with fascination and awe seemed important to me.

Few other creatures have so many different and contradictory beliefs held about them. Owls have been both feared and venerated, despised and admired, considered wise and foolish, and associated with witchcraft and medicine, the weather, birth and death. Speculation about Owls began in earliest folklore, too long ago to date, but passed down by word of mouth over many generations.

Interestingly the Inuit believed that the Short-eared Owl was once a young girl who was magically transformed into an Owl with a long beak. But the Owl became frightened and flew into the side of a house, flattening its face and beak. So Blodeuwedd was not the only transformation of woman to owl in folklore.

In the end I decided to have the owl blending with the background behind Blodeuwedd, a fate that awaits her in the future as she wakes in her bower and looks out directly at us with eyes that although they have only just opened on the world, are full of self awareness. One day she will return to her woodlands as owl, but now she is about to enter our world, one whose rules she does not know and will never really understand.

The making and unmaking of the woman of flowers.

Retold by Eric Maddern for Folk tales of Snowdonia

At first it seemed there would be no thwarting Arianrhod’s third curse. But Gwydion knew Lleu would never be a fully initiated man unless he had a wife. So he brought Math into the plan and together they spiralled deep into their most powerful magic. They gathered the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet, never usually found together, and arranged them just so. For three days and nights they chanted powerful spells and incantations. On the last morning, beneath the heap of flowers, lit by rays from the rising sun, there she was… the naked body of a young woman, her eyes opening for the first time. Lleu was overjoyed with his bride and that night, after the wedding feast, they slept together. Because she was made of flowers she was called Blodeuedd, the Woman of Flowers.

It could have been so simple. Lleu, the son of the Sun, married Blodeuedd, daughter of the Earth. He with eyes shining like the sun on pools of water, his back straight as a sunbeam; she as beautiful as the flowers of the Earth, singing songs to the sky. But life rarely is that simple. In time a cloud crossed their skies and their lives twisted into tragedy.

Math gave Lleu the cantref of Ardudwy (stretching from Maentwrog toward Dolgellau) to be his lands. There he and Blodeuedd set up court in Mur Castell (known now as Tomen y Mur) and all seemed well. But Blodeuedd wasn’t like other women. She’d heard about the laws of the land but she’d not grown into them. And though Lleu was kind to her and she liked him well enough, he never excited her. What she loved most was to go into the wildwood, to dance and sing. For at heart she was a tree spirit, a flower maiden. She left running court affairs to her senior women. Like a wild child she was more interested in mischief and play.

One day, when Lleu was away visiting Math and Gwydion, she heard the sounds of barking dogs, whinnying horses and shouting men as a hunt rode by her hall. The energy of the hunt excited her. Something about the raw, wild animality of it all set her pulse racing. After the hunters had felled the stag and baited the dogs she sent a messenger to invite them to dine with her. ‘After all,’ she said to her maidservants, ‘It would be bad manners not to.’

The leader of the hunt – Gronw Pebyr, Gronw the Radiant – was Lord of Penllyn, a cantref which stretched from the mighty mountain Cadair Idris in the south, to the head of Llyn Tegid in the east and right up to the sharp-peaked Cnicht in the north. To the west Gronw’s land adjoined Ardudwy, Lleu’s province. Perhaps Gronw had not noticed when he crossed the border; perhaps there was something fated in the way the stag led them to Mur Castell.

Inside the hall Gronw took off his boots and riding jacket, loosened his shirt ties and sat by the rough-hewntable with a leather mug of mead. Blodeuedd admired his powerful build, his thick beard, his laughing brown eyes. As the fire crackled and the candles flickered all the others disappeared in a buzz of merry chatter. Gronw’s eyes widened at the wonder before him. The woman of flowers. He’d heard of her beauty but in the flesh she was utterly entrancing. Her eyes, green as acorns, bewitched him. Her broom-yellow hair, loose over her shoulders, longed to be stroked. Her skin, creamy as meadowsweet, ached to be kissed. He was on fire. With no thought of consequences he reached out, drawn towards her delicate nectar like an intoxicated bee. Suddenly he was on his knees like a priest before his goddess. And she… said yes. She chose him, this half-wild man of beast and forest, and invited him into her bed.

They gave in to their passions all night long. He taught her so much of lovemaking. She showed him so much exquisite beauty. The next day in a daze he said he should leave but she said no, stay. His men long gone he stayed for a second divine night. But on the third day at last they talked of consequences. How can we live without this passion? We must be together. But what of Lleu? Come away with me. But he will seek us out. So he must be killed. That cannot be easily done. He is under a powerful protection. Find out the secret of his death. I will do it. Whatever it takes. For you…

Soon after Lleu returned to Mur Castell. But that night Blodeuedd was quiet and withdrawn. ‘What’s the matter, beloved?’ asked Lleu. ‘I’ve been worrying about you,’ said Blodeuedd softly, ‘and what would happen if you died.’ Lleu laughed. ‘Don’t worry about that. Unless God takes me I cannot be easily killed.’ ‘That’s a relief,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘But, there is a way, is there? Perhaps you should tell me so I can be sure it doesn’t happen. After all, a wife should guard her husband’s safety.’ Lleu smiled, touched by his wife’s care. ‘Well it’s all extremely unlikely,’ he said. ‘I can be killed neither inside nor outside, neither on foot nor on horseback.’ ‘I see what you mean,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘Sounds impossible.’ ‘Not only that,’ added Lleu, starting to enjoy the impossibility of it all, ‘I could only be killed by a spear that has been one year in the making, and then only on holy days.’ ‘So… is there a way someone could overcome all this?’ asked Blodeuedd, reaching out and stroking Lleu’s arm. Lleu paused, looked at his sweetheart, took a deep breath and confided to her his deepest secret. ‘If there was a thatched bathtub by the river, and if I was to stand with one foot on the side of the tub and the other on the back of a billy-goat, and if someone were to strike me with that year-in-the-making spear, then and only then would I die.’ ‘Good,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘That’s not going to happen is it!’

But the next day she sent a message to Gronw to start work on the spear. For his part he felt as if he had drunk a witch’s brew. He had only once choice. He’d never spent a year making a spear before. It would be the spear of spears. Taken from an ancient, bleeding yew, from a branch that was straight and true, Gronw whittled it down to the heart, hardened it in the fire, fletched it and tipped it with poison. After a year he sent the message: ‘I’m ready.’ Blodeuedd, for her part, had arranged for a thatched bathhouse to be built and had alerted the nearby goatherd.

Lleu was riding home from Caer Dathyl along the northern bank of the Glaslyn River. His horse knew the path and the reins lay slack in his hands. He came to a ford and the horse plunged in, the swirling river up to his boot heels. On the other bank Lleu glimpsed a smooth, rounded standing stone he knew well. Pryderi’s tombstone. He’d heard the story of Gwydion’s single combat with the Lord of the South, though not from Gwydion himself. Occasionally he caught twisted mutterings about Gwydion, oaths carelessly uttered by those who’d lost loved ones in the battle. ‘All for that stupid brother of his,’ he once heard. ‘Poor Goewin,’ some of the women had said. Gwydion might be a clever wizard and a good storyteller but he was not liked by everybody. He’d been a good uncle to Lleu, though, helpful and loving. He’d taught him secrets he’d revealed to no other man. Maybe Gwydion was making up for his dark past in his love for Lleu.

Blodeuedd greeted Lleu with a smile and a gentle kiss. Soon he was busy giving orders to his men and later telling Blodeuedd the news from Math’s court. He didn’t notice anything different about her. That wasn’t unusual. But inside Blodeuedd was different. For the first time in her fragile existence she was about to act. She was going to do something mighty. A chill breeze made the soft petals round her heart flutter and tremble. All the pieces of her plan were in place. Gronw had been told. Tomorrow was the day.

In the morning she squeezed Lleu’s hand and said: ’It’s midsummer’s day. Let’s go down to the river. I have a treat for you! Let me bathe you in my new bath house.’ It sounded good. Lleu was tempted. Besides, he liked to humour his wife. As they walked down the earthen path birds sang, the summer flowers bloomed. A thatched roof perched over a new wooden tub full of steaming water. Her maidens had done as she’d asked. ‘Come,’ she said, helping him to slip off his clothes. With a deep sigh he sank into the fragrant water. She soaped his muscled back and shoulders, washed his hair. Lleu dissolved in the pleasure of it, never for a moment suspecting a thing.

Blodeuedd didn’t fully comprehend what she was doing. She only knew that a strange memory of overwhelming desire was driving her on. She turned and nodded to the old goatherd who tethered a shaggy, long-horned billy by the side of the bathhouse. When Lleu was finished he stepped dripping out of the water and wrapped a cloth around his waist. ‘Look, a goat!’ she said. ‘What did you say about standing on a bath and a goat? How funny! You could do it now. If it happened once it would never happen again. But how? You’d slip wouldn’t you?’ ‘No,’ said Lleu, entranced by the water, sun, flowers, her laughing voice, not hearing the bees buzzing around her heart… ‘Like this.’

He rose up, one foot on the edge of the tub, the other, unsteady at first, on the back of the goat. She reached out her hand to steady him. Slowly he straightened to his full height. He took a deep breath. Through the oaks a shaft of sunlight fell upon him. Fresh, clean and invigorated he stood tall, let go of her hand and spread his arms. ‘There, you see!’

A wren hopping in a hawthorn was chirping fiercely. A shadow fell across the sunbeam. Too late he saw the spear speeding towards him, sneering, heart-hungry and shaggy with barbs. Too late, too late. It pierced skin, flesh, bone, heart… He crumpled and for a moment was suspended in the air. Then a dark shape fell upon him with wings spread wide. Claws sank into his shoulders, his body was ebbing away, shrinking, failing, falling apart. The great bird flapped its wings once, twice, three times – as if lifting the Earth – then flew off through the trees and was gone.

She stood. Where was he? Was this what Death means? Not even a warm hand gone cold. Just emptiness, a space. What was this in the corner of her eye? She wiped away a tear and looked up. A dark, raging passion was running towards her. Ah yes, this was why. This was what it was for. He swept her up in his arms.

Gronw the Radiant and Blodeuedd, Woman of Flowers, went to Lleu’s Hall and that night they slept together. The next day Gronw took possession of Lleu’s land so that Ardudwy and Penllyn were under his control. For many weeks Gronw and Blodeuedd enjoyed being together. But as the weeks stretched into months a gnawing feeling grew in Gronw. He knew this couldn’t last. He had murdered a man, a lord no less and one beloved by two powerful men. Sooner or later they would be on his trail to exact revenge.

When Gwydion heard what had happened he set out to find his nephew. He wandered wide until he came to a house in Arfon where he heard from a swineherd about a sow that left her pen every morning and ran swiftly off. ‘No one can catch her,’ he said, ‘No one knows where she goes.’ ‘Wait for me in the morning,’ said Gwydion. At daybreak he was there and followed the sow briskly up the Nantlle valley. She stopped under an oak tree and began to eat. When Gwydion got closer he realised to his dismay that she was devouring rotting flesh and maggots. He looked up into the tree and in the topmost branches spied an eagle. It did not look well. When it ruffled its feathers rotting flesh and maggots fell to the ground, so sustaining the sow. He sensed this bird was none other than Lleu, transformed and barely alive. So he sang an englyn, a powerful magical spell, and the eagle dropped half way down the tree. He sang a second and it came into the lower branches. Finally a third englyn brought the bird before his feet. And there, with his magic wand, he turned it back into Lleu. But Lleu on death’s door. He knelt down, scooped him up and carried him home. It took Gwydion a whole year, using all his healing powers, to bring Lleu back to health again. And when he did they knew the first thing they must do was to punish Gronw and Blodeuedd. Lleu wanted to take on Gronw. Gwydion said he’d deal with the Flower Maiden.

When Blodeuedd and her maidens saw Gwydion approaching Mur Castell they took off for the mountain. But the maidens were so fixed on looking back at their pursuers that they didn’t see where they were going and fell into a lake. All were drowned and the lake is still known as Llyn y Morynion, ‘The Lake of the Virgins’. Blodeuedd herself, however, did not meet this fate. To her pleading for mercy Gwydion said: ‘I will not kill you. You came from Nature and to Nature you shall return. I shall transform you into a bird. But a bird that dares not show its face in daylight for fear of being mobbed by other birds. All for the shame you brought upon Lleu’. With a sweep of his wand Gwydion turned Blodeuedd into Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced owl. And so is the owl still called today.

Gronw Pebr was shocked to hear that the man he thought he’d killed was after him. He fled to Penllyn. When Lleu caught up with him Gronw offered land and gold in recompense, but Lleu was not interested. ‘You must stand in the same place I stood,’ he said, ‘and allow me to throw a spear at you.’ Gronw tried to persuade one of his retinue to take the blow for him, but not one of them would. As a result they became ‘One of the Three Disloyal Warbands of Britain.’ So the two men went to the banks of the Cynfael River and Gronw stood where Lleu had been. At the last minute Gronw said: ‘Since I acted through the deceit of a woman, please, in God’s name, let me put that stone between me and the blow.’ And Lleu said he could. So Gronw lifted a huge stone and crouched behind it. Then Lleu, the Fair One with the Deft Hand, took aim and threw the spear, straight as a beam of light. It seared through stone and flesh, bone and heart. Gronw Pebr, Gronw the Radiant, Lord of the Beasts and Wildman of the Woods, lay dead, killed by the Lord of Light. The stone with the hole lies there to this day and is known as Llech Gronw, Gronw’s Stone.

As for Lleu he took back his lands and, according to the tale, after Math’s death became Lord of Gwynedd and ruled over the country well. And so ends this branch of the Mabinogi.

My thanks to Eric for allowing me to reproduce this story

You can find more info about the work of Eric Maddern here and here

And more about the history press folktales series here:


Cover Stories – John the Painter


There have been a few occasions that on my first read through of a text, something will jump out at me immediately and with such force that I know it will be the cover even though I have yet to read the rest and I have not even started to make notes. Ceredigion was one of these… When I came across this paragraph in the tale of John the Painter I was transfixed.
“And then he saw her. A dignified lady with ivy and rowan berries twined in her hair, cheeks pinched as pink as campion, a flowing gown of red. The Queen of the Fair Folk. “Who are you, Mortal?” she asked. “My name is John. I’m a painter,” he replied with a big grin. The Queen laughed. “We have no need of painters. We are art itself. We are nature. We do not grow old or decay like you. Do you have anything to offer us, Mortal?”
She seemed to be looking at me out of the page already… But how she should be framed eluded me for a while… I didn’t want John in the picture because in this context we are John, under her appraising eye. I found some mention in the text of the Mari Lwyd, and although the natural home of the grey mare is not really Ceredigion, I felt that she too could go wherever she pleased and was perfect company for a Welsh queen of fairy folk.

I have always been fascinated by the Mari Lwyd as an object and a tradition and even contemplated making myself a mini one out of a sheep skull I found (I might do it yet! )

To decorate and parade something so resonant with thoughts of death and decay as a skull seems to speak to many of our most ancient fears and desires and there are also many deities in the pantheon of old gods associated with horses including Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses and fertility and the strong connection between Rhiannon and horses in the Mabinogion.

dark mischief and the turn of the year seem twinned in so many ways too.

In Wales the fair folk, or Tylwth Teg ride out on horses in procession, bestowing gifts on those they favour that will always vanish if spoken of. So here they are together, the grey mare and her queen, as enigmatic as ever, just as we will always want them to be…


The Mari Lwyd

The Mari Lwyd itself consists of a mare’s skull fixed to the end of a wooden pole with coloured ribbons and bells and white sheets fastened to the base of the skull, concealing the pole and the person carrying it. The eye sockets are often filled with bottle-ends and the lower jaw is often spring-loaded, so that the Mari’s operator can snap it at passersby. During the ceremony, the skull is carried through the streets of the village by a party that stands in front of every house to sing traditional songs in a rhyme contest (pwnco) between the Mari party and the inhabitants of the house, who challenge each other with insulting verses. This generally occurred around new year and was sometimes associated with wassailing customs at that time of year.

The song of the Mari Lwyd (translation)

Well, gentle friends
Here we come
To ask may we have leave
To ask may we have leave
To ask may we have leave
To sing.

If we may not have leave,
Then listen to the song
That tells of our leaving
That tells of our leaving
That tells of our leaving

We have cut our shins
Crossing the stiles
To come here
To come here
To come here

If there are people here
Who can compose englynion
Then let us hear them now
Then let us hear them now
Then let us hear them now

If you’ve gone to bed too early
In a vengeful spirit,
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly

The large, sweet cake
With all kinds of spices:
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
This Christmas–tide.

O, tap the barrel
And let it flow freely;
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
This Christmas–tide.

if you would like to listen to the song in it’s original form you can find it here

the Mari Lwyd I based my illustration on in glorious action here…

The tradition declined in the early 20th century but has recently been revived in many parts of Wales, including Ceredigion, which incorporated ‘The world’s largest Mari Lwyd’ into it’s millennium celebrations

It has been suggested that it was the the Welsh Methodist revival that contributed to the decline of both the Mari Lwyd and a number of other Welsh folk customs. In 1802, the harpist Edward Jones of Merioneth published a book in which he lamented the destructive impact that Christian preachers were having on Welsh folk customs, which they were criticising as sinful. In his view, “the consequence is, Wales, which was formerly one of the merriest and happiest countries in the World, is now becoming one of the dullest”. Reflecting such a view, in 1852 the Reverend William Roberts, a minister at Blaenau Gwent condemned the Mari Lwyd and other related customs as “a mixture of old Pagan and Popish ceremonies… I wish of this folly, and all similar follies, that they find no place anywhere apart from the museum of the historian and antiquary.”
Long live the Mari Lwyd I say…

and now the Story,

John the painter – shared with the kind permission of Ceredigion author Peter Stevenson

In Aberaeron around the 1860s, there lived a tall gangly young man, a loafer, a dreamer, a bit of a painter, by name John Davies. He had lost his job as a carpenter, but fancied he could paint walls and furniture as easily as canvases. He was cheerful and enthusiastic and had a high opinion of his artistic talent, for confidence is often given as compensation to those with limited ability. But John was touched with genius. He could play the flute, he could play Mozart, Min Mair, and the Witches from MacBeth, he was loved at the local twmpaths. Play music and you’ll always have friends and food, but John was happier chasing squirrels to steal their fur for his brushes.
He was painting the Vicarage at Nantcwnlle near Llangeitho, when he was sent the nine miles to Aberaeron to buy provisions. After filling his rucksack he set off back with dusk approaching, making sure he had some bread in his pocket to appease the fairies should he encounter them. Instead of following the Aeron, he cut over the hill to Cilcennin to save a couple of miles. He thought to stop for a beer at the Commercial but knew the locals would ask him to play his flute, so he wound his weary way till he came to the Rhiwlas Arms, where the locals recognised him and invited him to play airs in exchange for drinks. By the time he’d played Ar Hyd y Nos and Glan Meddwdod Mwyn over and over, it was twilight and he was a little merry and remembering why he preferred painting. He set off, wobbling gently, and as soon as the light of the pub was behind him, the darkness hit him. It was as dark as a cow’s stomach, the darkness you only find in Ceredigion, and he could barely see the road in front of him. A ghost owl flew over his head and his heart skipped a beat. A fox leapt out in front of him and met his gaze with yellow eyes before loping away, more frightened than John. He knew where he was, up on the moor road leading to Nantcwnlle, and he was looking for the light of Peggi Ty-clottas to guide him, old Peggi’s house, the only house on the moor. John made for the light, but found himself in a bog, and the water seeped through the eyeholes in his boots. He waded on and followed the light. It seemed to be moving in a circle and jumping occasionally. When he came close he could see the light was a fairy ring. Every bone in his body told him to turn, but his heart pulled him inside the ring, and there they were, dancing ladies, almost the size of himself, all so beautiful, wearing white dresses, whirling in a circle, and one took him by the hand and he joined the corelw and he couldn’t take his eyes off the girl who had taken his hand, and he danced as never before, forgetting that everyone laughed at his awkward gangly movements, for now he believed he was Nureyev, and he was so besotted with the fair face of his companion that he hadn’t noticed the dancing had stopped.
The air was still. There was a smell of honeysuckle and bindweed. All the ladies were standing, breathing elegantly while John was perspiring and panting. And then he saw her. A dignified lady with ivy and rowan berries twined in her hair, cheeks pinched as pink as campion, a flowing gown of red. The Queen of the Fair Folk. “Who are you, Mortal?” she asked. “My name is John. I’m a painter,” he replied with a big grin. The Queen laughed. “We have no need of painters. We are art itself. We are nature. We do not grow old or decay like you. Do you have anything to offer us, Mortal?” John pulled his flute from his pocket and played airs from every land, from the Bonny Bunch o’ Roses to the Banks o’ the Bann. No one moved, no one smiled, and no one danced. “Have I displeased you, ma’am? Didn’t you like my playing?” The Queen spoke “Those are not our tunes. We are Welsh fairies.” So John broke into Owen Alaw and the ladies began to whirl and caper, and when he finished, he asked for a beer, and the laughter stopped. “Oh not again,” thought John. The Queen spoke icily, “We are teetotal.” Well, John played music all that night and the fair folk danced while the Queen watched. She spoke, “Mortal Man, you have pleased us. Take what you wish from us.” John, quick as a jack-the-lad, took hold of the hand of the fairy lady who had been dancing with him and asked for her hand in marriage. The Queen agreed, providing they return to Trichrug Hill once a year to play. John agreed, and they sealed their love with a kiss and they were about to taste each others lips when
“Is that you, John Davies? You good-for-nothing loafer.” It was old Peggi Ty-clottas from the cottage who’s light he had been looking for. She had heard the music and the dancing and seen the light, and she thought it was a corpse candle come to tell her someone was about to die. So she took a candle, and she found him, John Davies, sitting beneath a tree playing his flute, with soggy feet and a heavy backpack. He looked angry. “You’ve spoiled everything. Everything. I had a bargain. I nearly had a wife.”
Peggi took him by the hand and led him to her home, muttering, “Come on, Johnny, it’ll be alright.” From that day on he played for every dance and gathering, and told everyone who would listen that he was flautist to the fairies and almost took one for his wife. Most people just smiled and said, “Poor John. Poor long legged, gangly John.”