Eleri through the woodlands
Elenydd is the name given to an area of Mid Wales including the Cambrian Mountains and surrounding landscapes and seascapes. The part of it I know most intimately, both physically and spiritually, is its western edge, but I have also explored further east along the ancient trackway of Ceri to Arwystli. In the Fourth of the Four Mabinogi tales, Gwydion is returning to North Wales after tricking Pryderi into giving him the pigs that were sent to him from Annwn:
“And that night they journeyed as far as the uplands of Ceredigion to a place which is still called Mochdref (‘Pigtown’). The next day onwards over Elenid to stay overnight between Ceri and Arwystli in another town which is now called Mochdref.”
No-one knows exactly where these towns are now, but a stream which gives its name to a large reservoir below the mountain of Pumlummon is called ‘Nant-y-Moch’ (Stream of the Pigs) and this fits the general location of this part of Gwydion’s journey.
In their book Celtic Heritage, Alwyn and Brinley Rees compare Elenydd to Uisnech in Ireland where the Stone of Divisions stands. It is the centre which symbolises the whole. By no means as high or as spectacular as the mountains of Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons, its central position between these gives it a symbolic significance, better appreciated by the medieval mapmakers such as Gough who, in his map of 1360, shows it as if it is higher than the mountains to the north and the south, through to Speed’s map of 1612 which gives it similar prominence. Many rivers have their sources in Elenydd and the whole area is a place of water, held in the peaty earth as in a sponge. The mountain of Pumlummon (‘five peaks’), is known as the ‘Mother of Rivers’ , including the River Severn and the River Wye. Up on the summit of Pumlummon, Cei and Bedwyr stood in “the highest wind in the world” in their search for the things required by the giant Ysbadadden Pencawr for Culhwch to wed Olwen. So it is a place of great significance both in legend and its importance as the source of great rivers. Further east waters run off this range to fill the reservoirs of Claerwen and Elan to supply drinking water to towns across the border in England.
The valley of the river Leri (as it is named on maps) – or Eleri, to those who know her – begins on the western edge of this area, where the river waters fall from a lake into the narrow gorge of Craig y Pistyll. They run for twenty miles or so to reach the sea through the salt marsh between Borth Bog (Cors Fochno) and the sand dunes of Ynys-Las. The source is a lonely place amid the wild splendour of the open mountain and moorland that stretches as far as the eye can see even on a clear day when there is no mist. The nearby reservoir of Nant-y-Moch regulates the flow into the river Rheidol to a small hydro-electric power station miles downstream before it joins the River Ystwyth in the harbour of the town of Aberystwyth. But Eleri is a quiet stream running a short distance to the sea and supplying sweet water to the local population.
Running westwards, away from the great watersheds Eleri once meandered to the sea through the remnants of a sunken forest, the semi-petrified remains of trees that can still be seen in the sand at low tide on the beach at Borth on the shores of Cardigan Bay. It is possible to trace the previous course of this mile or so of the river over the fields created by draining the bog, (as I do HERE~>). But now the last stretch runs in a straight line to meet the estuary of the River Dyfi and functions as a drainage channel separating the green water meadows from the brown lands of the bog. This sudden transformation from a sinuous bubbling stream to something more resembling a canal seems like an insult to Eleri in human terms, but her lost course to the sea is symbolic of the lost lands of Gwyddno Garanhir. For this in legend was the drowned land of Cantre’r Gwaelod, to which the sunken remains of the forest on the nearby beach bear witness. Walking through the stumps when the tide is out it is possible to imagine the forest alive with birds in the green leaves, though the present reality is rock pools and oyster catchers foraging at the tide line. Along the estuary geese overwinter and in summer sand martens build nests in the banks. Once the bog stretched north along the River Dyfi nearly to Machynlleth, though most of the northern part of it has long since been drained for farm land (as is detailed HERE~>). The small hills that rise from the flat plain all have ‘Ynys’ (‘island’) in their names, an indication that they once stood above wetlands. It was the realm of ‘Yr Hen Wrach’ (the Old Witch) who, if she visited you in your bed at night, would cause you to wake with the shakes.
Between these two ends of the river, Eleri runs through wooded valleys, only really touching any significant place of human habitation when crossed by the main road north from Aberystwyth at the village of Talybont where, joined by the River Ceulan, the combined rushing waters once powered a woollen mill. Along the ridges of the valleys around here are a series of hill forts built to watch the approaches from the sea. Though I have walked from source to estuary, it is in these middle stretches that I came to know and love Eleri. There are places where it is possible to sit watching the flow for hours without seeing another person. These, to me, are sacred waters, the well of life flows through me when I sit here and I am part of the flow. And it is here, in the woodlands along and above the valley, that I come to meditate and to commune with the spirits of the valley. The map of it I have in my mind is populated with sacred places to which I can go, on foot or in imagination, whenever world space or mind space allows. There is a place where the river swirls around a bend and runs over rocks making a music that I have sat and listened to, entranced and responded with a blessing and a kiss, which she took, laughing, and tumbled it away.
Here, often, I have felt close to the OtherWorld. There are times when the trees enclose me and the ground shifts beneath my feet and the wind blowing through that place is a spirit wind at once swift as an arrow and as still as a pond of clear water. Then, when I emerge from the woodland onto the forestry road, it’s as if I have arrived there suddenly from I know not where. So I come often to these places and follow Eleri from her source in the mountains to her meeting with the sea. And if she is always running to the legendary realm of Cantre’r Gwaelod, so too am I always walking the paths to another world when I follow her winding way through the woods.
(Adapted from an earlier piece on the heritage Sacred Waters site).