September in Siluria

September 30th

Autumn is coming on gently this year, slowly speckling the bramble leaves with crimson rust, deepening the sloes from blue to indigo. But the evening primrose still flowers green-gold in the dunes, as does the occasional head of yarrow, or hardy ragwort. Among silver birches the rose pink of ragged robin, and nodding beside the bridleway, viper’s bugloss, a startling azure triffid up-close. 


Viper’s Bugloss

This morning, picking blackberries with my son, we watched a crane fly, “daddy long-legs.” It was tripping over itself among the leaves and got tangled in one of the hundreds of glittering webs that cover the bushes. We watched it for a little while. A strange contraption, the crane fly, it hung there, a wisp of dry grass and eyelashes, with the head of a tiny dragon. The web seemed empty, so we freed him, and he went twirling up briefly into the blue sky before sinking towards the webs again. And not all webs are empty. The fat garden spiders, conspicuous in their tiger skins, are everywhere.  A wren darts nearby, ignoring us, enjoying the spider harvest. We’ve decided it’s a good year for blackberry picking. We’ve gathered a tubful every couple of days, whenever the sun comes out. A few go in crumbles but most go into the freezer. Hopefully we’ll save up enough to make wine and jam.

Later, walking past The Prince of Wales pub, where the thinning hedge thorn is tinged with yellow, and a blackbird is sampling the scarlet haws, we notice a small bunch of juicy red rosehips, glossy and inviting, hanging out over the pavement. But this isn’t a wild rose of course, it’s bittersweet, whose beautiful purple and butter yellow flowers turn into these attractive clusters of berries. I’m often tempted to taste them. Bittersweet can be seriously poisonous though, and is a cousin of Belladonna, the Deadly Nightshade. So we point them out, name them, admire them, and move on. Further along, something much safer, almost as bitter, mugwort, which makes a pleasant enough tea for those with a palate for such things. A common weed to us, mugwort is deeply sacred to the people of the Himalayas, and plays a central role in the ceremonies of the shamans there. And mugwort too, like bittersweet, has a notorious relative: wormwood, the vital volatile ingredient of the poet’s poison, Absinthe. A cup of wormwood tea will surely be a challenge for anyone. I once idly ate a leaf in the garden of the legionary museum in Caerleon. The bite of its bitterness stayed with me for days. Mugwort grows all along this road. It’s showing its bones now though, the silvery grey leaves crinkling at the edges and the crimson hue of the stems aging to raw umber. The cars fly by as mugwort patiently endures the seasonal transformation.

The Romans planted the mugwort here. I’m an artist not a historian, but this is my contribution to a local history debate. There is some uncertainty about where exactly the Roman road passes through this region. We know it stretches from Cardiff to Neath, but what route does it take through the old borough of Kenfig? Does it go to the north of the M4, along Water Street as some think, or further to the south, through modern Kenfig, aiming for where the Normans later built the castle, on the bank of the river Cynffig? I favour the latter option for the admittedly slightly whimsical reason that mugwort is abundant along this road, but is very sparse along Water Street. And the Roman soldiers loved mugwort. They’d line their sandals with its leaves, the oils soothing blistered soles and cracked heels on the long march. The leaves also have strong antifungal and antibacterial properties. We can imagine the road builders, men of the Legio Secunda Augusta perhaps, clearing the scrub, laying the gravel, and taking the opportunity now and then, here and there, to plant a mugwort cutting, for those who come after. OK, yes, it’s a bit of a stretch perhaps, but I like the idea and I’m sticking to it.

Those men of the Second Legion might be veterans of the terrible war against the local Celtic tribe, the Silures. If they are then they would have lost many comrades, because the Second Legion was almost wiped out in south Wales. The Roman invasion of Britain was achieved fairly quickly. Many tribes sensibly chose not to resist the ruthless efficiency of the Roman blitzkrieg, or were quickly defeated. But the Silures fought hard. Their resistance is slightly puzzling. It would certainly have been easier, safer and some might say wiser, to come to terms with the Romans. But the Silures waged an effective guerrilla campaign for thirty years. They could also on occasion raise large and skilful field armies, as the 5,000 soldiers of the defeated Second Legion discovered. Resisting the Romans must have become something of a local tradition. Weapons, tactics and defiance passed on from fathers to sons, and mothers to daughters too perhaps, as we know that sometimes women participated in battles. One of the gods of the Silures, Ocelos, is equated in inscriptions with Mars, the Roman God of war. It may be therefore that there was a religious element to the Silurian resistance, a sense of sacred duty. We’ve seen in recent conflicts how this sense of holy mission can make all the difference. But whatever the reason, the Silures were certainly a courageous people, “changed neither by cruelty nor by clemency” as the Roman historian Tacitus wryly observed.

It’s curious that we don’t really remember the Silures today, we don’t tell our children about them. But they are part of who we are after all. They lived in the region roughly between the River Wye in the east and the Tawe in the West, modern Gwent, Glamorgan, and Brecon.  It’s possible they migrated from the Basque region. Mostly farmers living in roundhouses, they also used the hillforts at Margam, Dunraven, Llantwit, and elsewhere. These forts were sometimes used for defence, but more often perhaps for seasonal ceremonies of grain storage and trade. They seem to have been excellent horsemen and charioteers. They produced a distinctive hawthorn red enamel with which to decorate their intricate “La Tene” style metal work. Their descendants formed the bulk of the ragged band of barefoot archers who slaughtered the French nobility at Agincourt. A recent book appraises what we know of them, Ray Howells’ excellent “In Search of the Silures.”

Walking home from The Prince along the back lane this evening, boots slipping in the rucked mud, I caught a glimpse of the harvest moon, rising through the clouds in the east. It seemed very close, a pale smokey yellow face peering through hazel trees. The trees are already stripped of nuts, the grey squirrels take them even before they’ve ripened. Autumn has been mild so far but the first big frost can’t be far off. Soon we’ll turn the clocks back and the evenings will be dark. The next full moon, the hunter’s moon, will rise just before Hallowe’en.

 Evening Primrose

Kenfig Journal by Kristian Evans

Kristian Evans is an artist and writer from Bridgend interested in ecology and the ways we think about and interact with the “other-than-human” world. He has lived in Kenfig for five years. His performance installation “The Mirror’s Grain,” written with Tracy Evans, was launched at the Kenfig National Nature Reserve Centre in May 2010, as part of the “Mouth to Mouth” series of events organised by Arts for the Earth. The Kenfig Journal will appear here regularly.

@kenfigdunes on twitter