The Writing Wolf Blog

Beautiful Places – The Swallow Falls

Betws-y-Coed (“Prayer house in the wood”) in Conwy, North Wales, lies in  a valley near the point where the River Conwy is joined by the River Llugwy and the River Lledr.  It was founded around a monastery in the late sixth century and nearby is the famous Swallow Falls – Rhaedr Ewynnol, in Welsh menaing literally Foaming Waterfall!  This waterfall on the Afon Llugwy has become a familiar natural celebrity over the past 100 years and has featured on film, postcard and canvas.

Rising among the towering peaks of Carnedd Llewellyn the River Llugwy runs eastward towards Capel Curig and Betws-y-Coed, before reaching Swallow falls which is the highest continuous waterfall in Wales. The river hurls itself into a spectacular chasm at the Falls.

Best viewed after heavy rain the river rushes down from the mountains through tree-hung, rocky chasms. Jagged rocks and crags divide the stream into a number of foaming cascades which tumble headlong over boulders between richly wooded banks.

As for Rhaeadr; yes, it means waterfall, but some believe it is two words, dwr meaning water and Rhaea – so one meaning could be the water of Rhea. And who was Rhea? Legend has it she dates back to the Roman battles with Carthage. The oracle at Delphi in Greece informed the Roman army commander that if he wished to defeat the army of Carthage he must carry an icon (a carving in black meteorite iron) of Rhea, mother of Zeus and grandmother of Hercules, before the Roman eagle onto the battlefield. This the commander did and the battle was won. Rhea became the patron saint of Roman soldiers! It is an odd connection. But the Falls are next to the the A5 which was also the first Roman built road in England! Perhaps long ago the Falls were sacred to Rhea!

Madness, Pegwell Bay and The Bird of Night

Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 by William Dyce

Painted after a trip Dyce made in the autumn of 1858 to Pegwell Bay near Ramsgate, on the east coast of Kent, this picture is supposed to show various members of his family gathering fossils.  He has carefully recorded the flint-encrusted strata and eroded faces of the chalk cliffs; in the sky is the barely visible trail of Donati’s comet! But the shell pickers have their eyes on the ground, not necessarily understanding or perceiving their transitory place in the universe!  The location is interesting because it is the supposed site of Christianity first coming to Britain and it is a famous location for fossil hunting.  In the book, The Bird of Night,  the painting is a great source of interest for poor, mad Frances who thinks he understands the painter’s intent!  If you study the painting for a while it becomes haunting and, for me, so was this book!

The Bird of Night is the story of the relationship between Egyptologist Harvey Lawson and poet Francis Croft.

Francis is not just a poet but a brilliant poet, writing works that mark him as a genius and the foremost poet of his age. He also suffers bouts of crippling madness.

I loved this book with its metaphors of birds and landscape – owls as good and evil and the wonderful and wicked Venice.  No wonder Francis calls his poem Janus – he of the two faces! I had not read a gothic novel quite like it. The turbulent descriptions of madness were as frightening as thunder storms. The black notebooks delicately picked out the poet’s life – thank goodness for Moleskin!

I loathed the dry, faithful Harvey and I loved mad, dangerous and fragile Francis.  How could he deal with his intoxicating gift and his guilt for wanting to kill his brother for his cruelty and  his guilt, probably,  for his homosexuality? He has lived through the First World War which he seems to have found oddly comforting!

Apparently Susan Hill, herself, had doubts about the book even though it won her the Whitbread Novel Award in 1972.  She remarked in 2006 that “it was a book I have never rated. I don’t think it works, though there are a few good things in it. I don’t believe in the characters or the story.”  I don’t think I believed in the characters, they were not really rounded out, but for me the two characters worked brilliantly as counterpoints.

I found the two characters almost reminiscent of Charles and Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited.  I had a picture of Anthony Andrews (from the TV dramatisation) in mind whenever I thought of Francis – the cover picture for me was of Harvey!  Waugh wrote of Brideshead Revisited that the novel “deals with what is theologically termed ‘the operation of Grace”.  For me, to some extent, The Bird of Night deals with the absence of Grace and it is not surprising that Frances chooses to make his end in a church with a pair of secateurs.

Jack Frost and the Icicles

I grew up in a large Victorian house on a hill that had coal fires and no central heating. Oh my word was it cold in the mornings in winter! But it was beautiful for two reasons – fern frost on the windows and icicles hanging from the roof outside my window.

To adults fern frost was simply the result of ice crystals forming on a window pane.

But for me as a child they formed when Jack Frost touched the window pane and the sprite jack Frost was very real.

In Viking legend – he is known as Jokul Frosti, meaning “icicle frost” – in English folklore he is known as Jack. Sometimes he is also known as Old ManWinter!

He is an elf-like figure who personifies winter and its chilling effects! For me Jack had touched the window and the scupture of his fingers were the icicles hanging from our roof!

In praise of older women – no thank you!

Robert Graves (The White Goddess) and the neo-pagans have a lot to answer for with their triple Goddess. We seem to have imbibed that whole “maiden-mother-crone” schema. It brings us all those stereotypes that I believe are best avoided – the girl who must be beautiful, the woman who must be a mother and, after a certain age, all that is left to us is our wisdom! These are gender roles that have existed for thousands of years!

I tell you now, I don’t intend to be a crone – even one honoured for her wisdom! In reality, the most famous of the ancient Celtic triple Goddesses is Brigit, the daughter of the Dagda (Father God), often called “the poetess.” The story goes that there were three of Brigits, all sisters–Brigit the Poetess, Brigit the Smith and Brigit the Doctor–patrons of their respective skills. But they are all the same age. Brigit’s multiplicity implies that she is a master of many arts – all valuable.

Having said that, I am getting very tired of having to live with baby boomer stereotypes of the older woman! I don’t want to live in a world where I am constantly reassured that there is ‘life after fifty’ or ‘life after sixty’ (are we now to live in fear of seventy?). I have lived through fifty and have passed sixty – so I know there is life beyond!   I don’t want be praised for looking good any more than I want to be praised for being able to complete a full day’s work! It makes me feel like a performing seal and I don’t need your fish! Will I be a failure when strength fails and I can’t keep up the ‘standard’ anymore? If I want to dye my hair there is nothing noble about it! Nor is there anything noble or ignoble about going grey. It just happens, it is a personal choice and it is part of life! If you don’t like it that is your problem, not mine!

Favourite Words – Sacred



I’m not sure why I love this word!   It can have very negative connotations of something  restricted, forbidden or beyond censure.  But it gives me a warm sense of childhood awe and the amber light of candles and simple prayers.

If you look Sacred up in a dictionary, there are usually five definitions.

  • exclusively devoted to a deity or to some religious ceremony or use; holy; consecrated
  • worthy of, or regarded with, reverence, awe, or respect
  • protected by superstition or piety from irreligious actions
  • connected with, or intended for, religious use: sacred music
  • dedicated to; in honour of

The word came into use in the 14th century but it has its roots much earlier and is probably from the Old Latin ‘saceres’ which can be connected with binding in the sense of enclosing or protecting!

But for me the  feeling of the word is much closer to an  Encyclopaedia Britannica reference .  This is to the power, being, or realm understood by religious persons to be at the core of existence and to have a transformative effect on their lives and destinies.  Now that really does take me back to my simple childhood sense of the sacred and the picture above – Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World.  My father won a small copy of it as a Sunday School prize when he was a child.  It hung over my bed from as early as I can remember.  When I knelt to say my prayers, this was the God to whom I prayed, having no doubts at all about what was sacred!

Scribbling on trains

How many poets are there
writing on commuter trains?

Does every carriage contain someone
scribbling in notebook,
netbook or on an IPhone?

Each one of us reflecting
our own reality to a world
too busy to look,  let alone read!

Each  one of us sharing the core experience
and sometimes, just sometimes, peering over
another’s shoulder
and wondering?

Each one of us adopts the rules
specific to writing on trains
like some strange masonic rite.

Don’t rubbish mine and I won’t rubbish yours!

And prays for a publisher!

Nureyev, Fontaine and Falling in Love

Dame Margot Fontaine ballet dancing with Rudolph Nureyev.

In 1961, Rudolf Nureyev defected/leaped to the West, and on 21 February 1962 he and Fonteyn first appeared on stage together in a performance of Giselle.   It was a great success; during the curtain calls Nureyev dropped to his knees and kissed Fonteyn’s hand, cementing an on-and-offstage partnership which lasted until her 1979 retirement. Fonteyn and Nureyev became known for inspiring repeated frenzied curtain calls and bouquet tosses. A performance of the Giselle was televised and that was the first time I saw them dance together.  I fell in love with these two beautiful people.  If you would like to know what all the fuss was about then follow this link

Despite their differences in background, temperament, and a nineteen-year difference in age, Nureyev and Fonteyn became close lifelong friends but you were never quite sure about the extent of the friendship and whether there was the love affair you hoped for.  He said of her:

“At the end of Lac des Cygnes when she left the stage in her great white tutu I would have followed her to the end of the world.”

They remained close even after she retired to Panama!  When she was treated for cancer, Nureyev paid many of her medical bills and visited her often, despite his busy schedule as a performer and choreographer and despite his own health problems.

Nureyev said that they danced with “one body, one soul” and that Margot was “all he had, only her.” An observer said that “If most people are at level A, they were at level Z.”

Dark heroes and old shades


A gentleman was strolling down a side street in Paris, on his way back from the house of one Madame de Verchoureux. He walked mincingly, for the red heels of his shoes were very high. A long purple cloak, rose-lined, hung from his shoulders and was allowed to fall carelessly back from his dress, revealing a full-skirted coat of purple satin, heavily laced with gold; a waistcoat of flowered silk; faultless small clothes; and a lavish sprinkling of jewels on his cravat and breast.

Thus opens These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer and the gentleman in question is Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon, known by friends and enemies alike as Satanas – the devil.  He is glamorous, jaded and fascinating and, on this particular evening, he meets his match! He encounters the intriguing and equally fascinating, red-headed, Léon – who is really Léonie!   Masquerading as a tavern boy, she is escaping a beating at her brutal “brother’s” hands.  So Avon, on a whim, takes her into his household and parades her, in pre-Revolutionary Parisian society, as his page.    These Old Shades follows a twisting course as young Léon is swept into  a dangerous  game by the Duke when he takes his revenge upon an old enemy.  As Leonie falls in love with Satanas of the curious and heavy lidded eyes – so do we!  Well I did anyway!  On lazy summer afternoons in my mid-teens, I discovered Georgette Heyer and the Duke.  An impression was made that has lasted a life time.  I’ve found many other characters since then who have some things with him in common – most notably Mr. Darcy, of course! But for me no other character in fiction weaves quite the same spell!