Ask the Yew trees, they probably bid Asaph welcome as he set up his preaching cross and Llan in these hills.
Led Zeppelin fans will want to take note, though true Zep fans will know all this anyway! LZ3 the famous acoustic album was recorded by the British Rock band and released in 1970. The album cover now testifies to the following: “Credit must be given to Bron Yr Aur a small derelict cottage in south Snowdonia for painting a somewhat forgotten picture of true completeness which acted as an incentive to some of these musical statements. – August 1970.” Bold words indeed. Bron yr Aur, Golden breast, or more often reduced to ‘golden hill’ refers to the colour of the hillside around the cottage. The cottage itself stands some 500ft above sea level up a steep track near Machynlleth and it happens to belong to some friends of mine. You might be wondering why such a thing is mentioned on this day as we remember St. Asaph – no rock icons here – so far as I know. The story of Bron yr Aur doesn’t end with Robert Plant and Jimmy Paige. The cottage was bought in 1970 by a young ordinand soon after the LZ had moved out! Little did he know of its connections. Bron yr Aur had no running water or electricity – it does today, after a fashion, though living in the cottage is hard work as the electricity supply is not guaranteed . It’s amazing how often the sun don’t shine, and the wind don’t blow and there isn’t enough water falling down the hillside all at the time you need to hoover or do the washing. My friends lived there for some years before moving down the hill to Machynlleth. The cottage is now occupied by his daughter and son in law – she happens to be a LZ fan and was gutted to be away when Robert Plant came to call. Still you might be questioning the persistence of this exposition, but as AA Milne should have said: ‘Bear With Me’.
Whilst visiting Machynlleth recently we were reflecting on the fascinating history of Bron yr Aur because at Moma Cymru in Machynlleth a new exhibition was being opened. One of the artists was American, Jim Stallings, whose subject was none other than the cottage Bron yr Aur. It is clear that the welsh hillside was of great inspiration to LZ as they created their album, for myself I wonder if the lack of electricity had something more to do with its acoustic nature. Also a great inspiration for painter Jim Stallings, though the cottage features heavily in most of his pictures referencing the songs of LZ3. If you’ve visited the area or even made ‘the pilgrimage’ to the now rather famous cottage you will discover the beauty and silence that inspired the music. Rather than the music, it is the place that interests me for today, we celebrate St. Asaph patron of this Church, Deanery, Archdeaconry and Diocese. What was it about this place that drew Asaph here? Was it a sacred place before he came? What prompted him to set up his preaching cross and Llan in these hills? Did this become a sacred place after Asaph, or was it important before? What about Robert Plant and Jimmy Paige, did they make Bron yr Aur special, or did they just lead the way to it! I have a little theory, which if you’ve read the book, Earthed, you’ll know all about.
It is possible already to catch a glimpse of this – even here in Llanasa. Places where balance is either restored or human intervention is held back. A window into another world, or, another way of seeing and being with this earth. There are places on this earth that have not yet been contaminated by the human desire to control and they are seen as very special indeed. To some they are known as sacred spaces. To others they are known as thin places. To others they are simply places where the mind is able to rest without competition from outside. Perhaps we should begin to see them as Sabbath spaces, places where we let go of our control. Some of these places are natural, some have had intervention from humans, but are significant for their meaning. Some are places of struggle and pain. Other places are those which have been carved out by humans to create such a space. These spaces are able to teach us about our connections with the earth, but also through a deeper connection with the earth we can learn more about our desire and need for such places and the desires and needs of the earth itself through which we can connect with God. Bron yr Aur didn’t become important because LZ3 was inspired by it. The testimony of the cover says it all, Bron yr Aur was special already, it had the imprint of the creator, untarnished, they just pointed to it.
It is said that Melangell at Pennant in the Berwyn Mountains and Columba on Iona, even Asaph and the other Welsh Saints here shared a close connection with the earth so deep that the veil has lifted slightly and the spiritual realm is allowed to penetrate the physical. Is this way of speaking true or is it romanticising an era of the saints. To be sure there are those who have been signposts for others in terms of our connections to nature and to other humans. The testimony of George Macleod and Iona Community which he founded is that the island of Iona, though important was not the central mission for the early community. Urban Glasgow was of central importance for Macleod. Iona served its purpose, it allowed new connections and allowed old prejudices to be broken. Members were then sent out restored and healed to work for the kingdom. Melangell established her small community in the Berwyn Mountains, yet all who come for healing, transformation and reconciliation are naturally sent back to where they have come from for there is no healing without facing the issues that instigated the visit. For those who visit Bron yr Aur, the draw is initially the music but I wonder if they catch the same dream and vision that these musicians did in the 60’s? Could this place mean so much more for us and perhaps be an even greater place of peace, reconciliation and healing if only we recognise the importance of allowing the natural to take its own course, to speak to us as we let go our control. We must allow these places to speak for themselves. I always marvel at Yew trees, they are a living testament to death and resurrection. Some try to date them, others are wise enough to know that this is an almost impossible task due to the way they grow, regenerating from the inside out. Often a new tree will grow within the hollow trunk of the old, or the new saplings will grow up in a ring around the mother tree setting off a new generation. Our Yew trees, one of which gave up a branch in the storms a few years ago, that branch alone is at least 80 years old, certainly not ancient in itself, but ask this: What have these trees or their predecessors seen? Certainly they will have seen these walls built up around us? Did they greet Asaph and bid him come and stay? Our connections to the lives of these ancients are closer than we think. Literally beneath our feet. ‘Tread softly’, wrote Yeats, ‘for you tread on my dreams.’