by Michael Bloor
(first published in Occulum , summer 2017)
They keep asking me why I did it. Then, as soon as I start to explain, D C Grainger butts in with: ‘Was this on the morning of June 11th?’ I deal with that and then D C Singh chimes in with: ‘Did you tell anyone that was where you were going?’ I struggle past that, and then as soon as I get to the bit about the Holy Spring, I see ‘em exchanging those ‘Has he escaped from the funny farm?’ looks. A dispiriting business for a university professor accustomed to a respectful audience. So I’m setting it all down on paper. And then I’m not telling the police another bloody word.
I live in Scotland now, but most years I manage a visit to my mother’s country, the Welsh Borders. When I was a child, I used to spend every summer holiday in the Abergavenny house of my grandparents, Harry and Gladys Cecil. The little town is surrounded by seven hills, but for a child the hill that holds the greatest glamour is the Sugar Loaf (its Welsh name is Pen y Val), which looms over the north of the town. Every summer, I would pester Grandad Cecil to re-tell the story of how Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West Show to Abergavenny in the summer of 1903. Grandad had been one of the children in the audience when Buffalo Bill vowed to his audience that he would walk up the Sugar Loaf. And that’s just what he did the next morning, accompanied by half the adults and all the children of Abergavenny.
Bear with me. I’m trying to explain that the mountain exerts a strange pull – even a hard-bitten old-timer like Buffalo Bill could feel it. It remains a big draw today and the most popular routes have carparks at the foot of them. For sentimental reasons I take a less travelled route, setting out from Deriside (where my grandparents lived), crossing the ford by Harris’s farm, round the foot of Rholben, and up St Mary’s Vale. Just like the Sugar Loaf/Pen y Val, St Mary’s Vale has both an English and a Welsh name. Granny Cecil said that the Normans conquered the broad lowlands, but the Welsh always held the hills, and the head of the Vale is known by its Welsh name Cwm Trosnant, which means the valley of the three springs. St Mary’s Vale starts out as a gentle valley covered in beech woods. In June, the leaves are a dizzying, iridescent green, squirrels dart up the towering grey tree boles and scold you – ridiculously – from the upper branches, the stream splashes over sandstone pebbles. Again, I’m telling you this because you need to understand the pull of the place.
As you make your way up the Vale, it narrows and the great beeches give way to stunted oaks and thorn trees – you’ve crossed an invisible border into Cwm Trosnant. Near the head of the cwm, the path strikes off steeply to the right and the hidden summit of the mountain. Just a few metres onwards and upwards, the path passes by one of the three springs from which the cwm gets its name. It issues, cold as your fridge, from the roots of a thorn tree. As a child, sixty years ago, I often stopped to watch the mysterious welling of the waters out of the earth and into the light. I would dangle my hand in it, but I never drank from it, mindful of my mother’s frequent warnings of the dangers of polio – the great child killer of the 1950s. The springs of the Welsh hills were holy places, a source of wonder, even before the coming of Christianity. Hermit saints understood the mesmeric attraction of the springs and built their churches beside them. Even today, there’s an isolated, ancient church beside a spring a few miles from Abergavenny, where pilgrims still leave spring-side offerings. Sixty eight years old and no longer bound by my mother’s injunctions, on that June day I bent down and cupped my hands to drink.
Bending down to the clear, bubbling water, tasting it on my parched tongue, I had a sensation of the world behind me being progressively suffused with brilliant light. As I lifted my head, I was entranced to see the cwm transformed. It was still a narrow upland valley, but instead of the bracken, thorns and stunted oaks, there was a miraculous pleasance. I say ‘pleasance’ rather than garden, because I knew instinctively that this was no modern landscape. There were roses, lupins and hollyhocks; the thorn above the spring had been replaced by an apple tree suffused with blossoms. It was as if I was in Tennyson’s ‘island valley of Avilion… fair with orchard lawns and bowery hollows’ where King Arthur was carried by barge after the Last Battle. Enchanted, I turned to see a woman in the middle distance, walking towards me. Her beech-green dress, which swayed about her body as she walked, was long and trailed among the daisies at her feet. Her red-gold hair was coifed above her brow but fell about her shoulders. Her face was solemn and ageless.
She spoke to me in what I took to be Old Welsh (as a child, I learned Welsh from my mother), but I could make little of it. She switched to English, spoken clearly but with the punctilious correctness of a foreigner:
‘Well met, Michael, son of Mary, daughter of Henry. Long have I waited for you here beside the great spring of Taliesin Ben Beirdd. We are kin, you and I, because I am Angharad, wife of Sitsyllt ap Dyfnawl.’
I knew the name. The slaying of Sitsyllt is a well-known piece of Abergavenny local history. In 1177, William de Braose the new Norman Lord of Abergavenny, invited around seventy leading local Welshmen to a Christmas feast in his Great Hall. Among them was Sitsyllt of nearby Castell Arnallt, a formidable warrior. As was the custom of the time, the Welsh nobles, surrendered their weapons before entering the dining hall. Once the Welsh were all assembled, they were set upon by de Braose’s men-at-arms and slaughtered to a man. The men-at-arms were then dispatched to Sitsyllt’s Castell Arnallt, which they destroyed and took Sitsyllt’s wife, Angharad, back to Abergavenny as a prisoner. Sitsyllt’s kin eventually anglicised their name to Cecil, my mother’s maiden name.
‘Those of Sitsyllt’s kin who drink at Taliesin’s spring receive the gift of true sight, but they are also honour-bound to strive to remedy the dishonour done to Sitsyllt’s house and name. Do you accept the obligation I shall lay upon you?’
I nodded. I could scarce do otherwise.
‘Very well. I know you are a scholar; I give you a scholar’s task. Among the booty from the sacking of Castell Arnallt, the Normans took away my Great Book. The court of my brother, the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, was the greatest centre of learning in all Britain: bards and sages, harpists and holy men were all welcomed there and competed in the recitation of the laws, the lineages, the ancient wisdom and the holy truths. By the bidding of my brother, I wrote down all that was good and true, and I bore that book as a love-gift to my husband, Sitsyllt. The Great Book has passed through many foolish hands since the Norman theft. Finally, a drunken sot of a clergyman willed it to his old college, Dodson College, Oxford.’
She saw my look of surprise. ‘Yes, it lies in the library of your old college, unexamined and uncatalogued, stored as the bequest of the late Reverend Pugh. You must right the wrong and return the book to me, here on Midsummer’s Eve. Take this ring: when you come back with the book, throw the ring into Taliesin’s spring and I will return to you, with my thanks and the thanks of all our kin.’
The ring was of a curious, twisted, gold-filigree design. It was too small to fit on my finger. I slipped it into my pocket and went back to the pub where I was staying. I checked the Dodson College website on the internet. I was dismayed to find that the college librarian was an elderly, retired party who had been a don in the college when I was an undergraduate there fifty years ago. A colourless individual who had adopted a pipe in lieu of a personality, but nevertheless possessed a certain capacity for mischief and fussy cantankerousness: his nickname was Gollum (I know, I know: first a gold ring and now Gollum turns up – where have you read this before?). I realised then and there that there would be no sense in appealing to the college authorities to restore The Great Book to the Cecils: I would simply be alerting the college to the fact that they had overlooked a valuable asset which they could flog off. Instead, I’d have to steal it, albeit knowing that I had justice and history on my side. I checked out of the Black Bull pub that evening and before ten o’clock I’d checked into a bed-and-breakfast in a village outside Oxford.
I went for a reconnaissance the following morning. I was amazed to discover how little the college had changed. The library was still housed in the same cramped quarters and contained the same out-of-date texts, translations and bound periodicals. There was no space to store uncatalogued volumes. I guessed that they would have been dumped in the cellars. There were two different sets of cellars: the wine cellars beneath the dining hall appeared to have a formidable door and lock; the other cellars, in the same bloc as the library, had a neglected appearance and a simple clasp lock on a fragile-looking door – child’s play, I thought.
I bought a jemmy and a powerful torch and waited for dark. I confess that I was rather enjoying myself. The college gates were no longer locked in the late evening, but the porters’ lodge still housed a night porter, so I decided to climb in using the same route that I’d used fifty years ago, via the bike sheds. This proved more difficult than I’d anticipated: the spirit was willing, but the flesh had withered. I sustained a nasty graze, a sprained ankle and a ripped jacket, but I got over. In contrast, the hasp on the cellar door was a breeze and came away like cobwebs.
There was lighting in the cellar, but it wasn’t working: I hunted for a mains switch in vain. In the torchlight, the crowded cellar contents looked as a chaotic as an earthquake in Legoland: there were piles and piles of discarded furniture, tea chests filled with the abandoned possessions of past generations, some old lead piping, tied bundles of papers, ancient chemical apparatus, a battered croquet mallet… It seemed that, unless I was very lucky, the search would take more than one night. My dust allergy kicked in right away, but I stuck to the task. After an hour or so, I did come across an open tea chest full of books, but they proved to be the abandoned private library of past undergraduate, seemingly someone of my generation – I recognised ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and RD Laing’s ‘Divided Self’. Underneath it, was a closed tea chest, which I assumed contained more of the same, but when I jemmied it open I saw it contained hardback books from an older period. I flicked open the topmost book – a collection of sermons – and on the flyleaf I read ‘Ex Libris Reverend Augustus Pugh.’ Oh Joy.
The Great Book of Angharad was right at the bottom of the chest. It was a massive thing that looked to have been re-bound at some point, with metal-edged leather covers and a clasp. I heaved it out the chest and opened it up at random – a foolish thing to do, because the eight-hundred-year-old pages were very brittle. Part of a page broke off as it was opened. I shut the book and closed the clasp, but not before I’d satisfied myself that the writing seemed to be in Old Welsh.
‘Well, well, if it isn’t Guy Fawkes!’ Two torches snapped on. In surprise, I dropped The Great Book back in the tea chest. I then dodged behind some derelict desks, deeper in the cellars, but the two police patrolmen quickly picked me out again. It seemed I’d been betrayed by my dust allergy: the night porter on his rounds had heard the sneezes, found the broken lock on the cellar door, and called the cops.
The charges I was facing were ‘breaking and entering’ and ‘criminal damage’ – the college authorities claimed I’d destroyed the roof of the bike sheds. At first, I refused to say anything, beyond giving my name and address. But the duty solicitor at the station persuaded me to explain what I’d been doing in the cellar, saying it would look better in the magistrates’ court. So I told him. A few hours later, I told the same story to the two detective constables in the interview room. They plainly thought I’d lost a marble or two when I fell off the bike sheds, but they sent a constable round to the cellars to see whether there was indeed a big book in the bottom of the tea chest. He found Gollum, the librarian, there ‘checking whether there was anything missing or damaged.’ The tea chest was empty.
Well, maybe I have lost a marble or two, DC Grainger and DC Singh. But how would you explain Angharad’s celtic ring, safely hidden in my washbag at the B&B? And it’s plain to me who has snaffled The Great Book. I sense a second family connection here: Gollum’s surname is ‘Pugh.’ I suggest you get a search warrant.