By Angharad Wynne, September 6, 2015
This is a view across the Lavan sands between Abergwyngregyn on the north Wales mainland and Beaumaris on Anglesey at sunset. For millennia, it was the main route from the mainland to Mona (Anglesey) and accessible only at low tide. Its ancient name, Traeth Lavan or Traeth Wylofain in Welsh, means ‘the sands of weeping’, possibly a reference to the lamentations for the lost settlement and inhabitants of a one time settlement here, which like many places around our coast, was overwhelmed by a rise in sea levels during the sixth century.
It was across these sands, and by ferry across a narrow but deep channel of water at its centre even at low tide, that early Mesolithic hunters and their shamans would have crossed to Mona. Later, the Neolithic tomb builders came and went across here, bringing new ideas about burial chambers and the creation of sacred space, perhaps following discourse with other tomb engineers of the time on the mainland, and across the water in Ireland at the great sites of The Boyne Valley.
Those skilled stone axe makers based at Penmaenmawr on the mainland coast, crossed here to ply their beautifully polished, highly prized stone axes. Later still, the first Druids, the priests of the new Celtic settlers of the Iron Age made their way across the Lavan Sands to meet, and perhaps learn about the dreaming of the holy island of Mona, from the small dark shamans of the native Neolithic communities of the Island. What they found there in terms of sanctity, dreaming and the sanctuary it offered must have been extraordinary, because of all of the places held sacred by the Druids in northern Europe, they chose Mona as their main centre of leaning and teaching base.
It’s rather intriguing to imagine young, hopeful initiates making their way over Bwlch y Ddeufaen, following the songline that we’ll explore on our forthcoming Dreaming the Land: the Poet’s Stone retreat, towards the Lafan sands and beyond to the Druid college at Mona. Perhaps they had shown promise from a young age, perhaps they had been tutored by the Druid priesthood of their own tribes, and when the time was right, set on paths from their home forts scattered across the length and breadth of the British Isles and northern Europe, with basic instructions in the form of songlines (a series of landmarks remembered through story and song), as to how to reach the pass of the two stones, the ancient and sacred pathway through the guardian mountains of Eryri (Snowdonia).
Certainly, the Conwy River, whose name means ‘holy river’ would have been a key landmark for finding the path. We know that what much of what we call the A5 today was a pathway as far back as the Neolithic, and would have been an important route towards Mona and the mountains of Eryri from the mid and southern parts of Britain. This route would likely have have served the tribes of the Cornovi, Coritani, Iceni, Dobuni, Catuvellauni, Trinovantes, Belgae, Atrebates, Regnenses and Canti if not others as well, in their journeys to and from the holy isle and Druid base of Mona.
It is quite likely that the roads used by the later Romans, were already trackways developed thousands of years previously to navigate the easiest routes through the high mountains. Today’s picturesque town of Betws y Coed sits on the confluence of the River Lligwy flowing from the west with the River Conwy flowing north towards its estuary at Conwy. David Hopewell, in his book Roman Roads in North East Wales, proposes that there was a junction here between the trackway that follows the path of the A5 and a route north along the west bank of the Conwy. During Roman times it was used to link the Roman Fort at Bryn y Gefeiliau near Betws y Coed with Canovium, a Roman fort that guarded the important crossing of the Conwy River at Tal-y-Cafn. It is likely that in earlier times, this route would have led both to the important Bronze Age hillfort settlement of Pen y Gaer and to that crossing of the Conwy river.
Those crossing the Conwy at Tal-y-Cafn, heading west would have then followed a path directly towards Maen y Bardd and Bwlch y Ddeufaen and through the mountain pass. Likewise, the Roman road from Bryn y Gefeiliau near Betws y Coed, makes a junction at Tal-y-Cafn. It is likely that the generations of travellers journeying towards Mona during prehistory did much the same, and our young Druid would also have followed this path.
Having followed the western flank of the Conwy north, then turned left to head west at Tal-y-Cafn, our young Druid would have begun a steady ascent until he reached Cae Hun chambered tomb and Maen y Bardd burial chamber, and possibly found a small settlement there of people able to provide some hospitality and simple fare for weary travellers.
These two tombs (and recent archaeological surveys suggest there may have been more that have since been destroyed in the vicinity of Cae’r Hun – which means field of the sleepers or dead), would already have been ancient sites by then, and who knows whether the ancestors of these places would have been honoured by our young Druid. Such Neolithic burial chambers certainly continued to be used to burry the dead right through the Bronze Age. Decorated Beaker pots containing crematory remains from this period are often found buried within the earth mounds which once covered such chambers (but which in most cases have now been eroded away). Evidence now suggests, and archaeologists increasingly agree that the arrival of the Celts to the British Isles during the Iron Age was more ‘peaceful integration’ than invasion as previously believed. It therefore seems possible, that they adopted and honoured the indigenous beliefs of the small indigenous dark people of these lands into their own. After all, the Druids honoured the local spirits of nature, the genius loci of place. It makes sense that they worked with and adopted what they found here; the spirits of place and ancestors that had been sacred to the people of this land for many thousands of years already, although of course, they might have though about them and used quite different rituals and methods to worship them.
It is likely therefore, that our young Druid on his or her way to Mona would have sensed some connection or at least felt moved to honour these ancient burial tombs as places where the ancestor guardians or the ‘old ones’ of these lands lay, and where their spirit was still keenly present. Perhaps our Druid even stopped to ask a blessing on the onward journey along this tract of path from the ancestors-guardians within these tombs.
Less than an hour later, the path would have brought our young Druid to the stone circle of Cylch y Pryfaid, the circle of insects or small creatures. Again, such a sacred place would not have been of our Druid’s time, but it is likely that even a basic training would have involved some knowledge of the purpose of these places to earlier generations of this land; the importance of the various alignments, how to work with the energies of such places at significant points of the year, equinoxes and solstices in particular. Again, we might imagine our young Druid stopping to earth himself in this land, to plant his feet in it and align himself in some way, as preparation for the immense transition and challenge he or she would face in an attempt to gain access to Mona, to be accepted for advanced magical training among the Druid Dreamers of that holy isle.
Eric has been wondering whether the epithet associated with one of the islands of Britain “the island of the strong door” actually relates to Mona. It is very possible, not just in physical terms of how difficult it would have been to navigate the waters and crossing places for those who did not know the tides and currents of the Menai Straits, nor the routes across the Lavan sands, but also the mystical, spiritual and psychic fortifications set up by the Druids to protect that place and the knowledge it contained.
At last, our young Druid would have arrived at the portal stones of Bwlch Y Ddeufaen. Passing between these might have felt like a point of no return, of leaving behind one’s old life, and embracing what challenges the road ahead had in store. Shortly after passing between the stones, the pathway rises to a ridge, at the top of which, the land below and beyond to the north and all of Mona is revealed, right the way to Holy Mountain at its far end. If the tide happened to be out, then the Lavan sand with its route across may have been visible. If not, then the tract of water would have seemed a treacherous barrier.
From this point, the pathway heads downwards into a river valley, or possibly for those in the know, across the contours of Llwytmor Bach towards the top of Aber falls. This tall, powerful waterfall would surely have been a potent and sacred place for our young Druid. Across all of Celtic Britain and Europe, water pools, rivers, great waterfalls and small springs reveal evidence of having been revered and considered holy by the Iron Age Celts. Stone heads or carved stone or occasionally well preserved wooden sculptures of human figures (almost always female) are found placed within water sources by our Celtic ancestors. Many lakes, rivers and bogs too continue to relinquish their secret sacrificial treasure hoards, cast away into water in what seem to be great invocations or pleas to the Celtic gods of water (mostly female according to classical commentators) for grace, intervention or aid. Did our young druid make a special pilgrimage a little way off the marked path to this place, perhaps to honour the goddess of these waters, perhaps to purify himself before attempting to reach Mona, perhaps even to cast his own offering into the tumbling waters?
The walk from Aber Falls to the edge of the Lavan sands crossing point at Abergwyngregyn would have taken our young Druid little more than a couple of hours, and then it would have been a matter of waiting for the tide to part the waters, crossing to the old settlement site which stood amongst the sand until the sixth century. Maybe he or she rested there awhile awaiting the ferry to cross the narrow but deep water channel to the Mona side of the sands. Once across, our Young Druid might have taken a deep breath, gathered courage and prepared to petition the Druids of Mona to part the veil and admit access to one in search of the deeper dreaming, communion with the gods and the great wisdom and magic of this land, at the threshold of the strong door, at the crossing point between the Lavan sands and Mona’s sacred earth, where one journey ended, and another began.
Angharad and Eric will lead a retreat exploring the landscape, dreaming, archaeology and mythology of The Poet’s Stone songline, and the Bwlch y Ddeufaen path towards the Lavan sands and Mona later this month. If you’d like to come along, the four day adventure begins on 16th September. Full details can be found on www.dreamingtheland.com With thanks to Eric for the great pictures.