Category Archives: Touring Britain

In search of King Arthur in sand-swept Pennard


Image of Pennard Castle

The lonely, sand swept walls of Pennard Castle, Glamorganshire, here showing the twin-towered gatehouse.

To come from the seas,      across sandy shoals,

By boat on the waves     to beach at Pennard

Lets all see a castle     so grand and serene

That folk are at once     all won over with joy!

When I was a knight     in these lands long ago

I came to this place     so proud on my horse

And jousted with jollity     in jaunts with my friends

In front of King Arthur,     the fairest of all,

And lovely Waynor     with her wondrous grey eyes.

With Sir Bors and Sir Lucan,     boystrous and bold,

And also Sir Lancelot     that most skilful at tourney,

I fought in the field     with my lady’s sleeve

As a token of truth     in telling of my love.

The banners all blue     and those others so bright

Did fly in the wind      afloat and a-flutter

With silks all soft blowing     which I myself saw.

By those walls on those cliffs     all those knights made a clatter

As hoof and hard armour     all hammered at once

And cheers rose in chanting     with every man’s challenge

Until at the close     when a champion was called.

But those days are now done,     they have drawn to a close,

Which once bore brave witness     to chivalry wondrous;

The winds which blew banners     have now brought just sand

And that castle I knew     has all crumbled and cracked.

Where Arthur watched from,     those walls are all wracked

That once saw that fighting     in those long-off days

And the land and the village     and all those loyal folk

Have all dwindled and gone     as the sand drowned them all in

its way.

We look upon that fort

So strong in Arthur’s day;

It is sadly now but nought

And his knights all gone away.


About Pennard Castle…

Pennard Castle on the Gower Peninsula is a small stone castle, built on a former ring work castle. It is lightly-built but in a commanding site which safe-guarded access to the land below it, in particular the valley of the Pennard Pill which advances inland from the beach. According to Cathcart-King, it is first mentioned in 1322; the remains today comprise the remnants of a twin-towered gatehouse, a small round mural tower, a larger square tower, a section of wall and the foundations of the great hall. The life of the castle was short, succumbing to the incursion of sand dunes in the fourteenth century which also led to the decline and then desertion of the neighbouring village. In his evocative, if somewhat inaccurate description of the ruins (and their cause) in the 1920s, CWC Oman states, with a somewhat laconic air, “It is a melancholy site, half filled with drifting sand; for though it stands on a rock, the wind has piled it deep with fine detritus from the neighbouring golf links – where may be seen the only signs of life in this rather depressing corner of the peninsula”. 

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Arthurians and others with an interest – this blog is written in the style of the fourteenth century alliterative poets.

I am currently crowdfunding my second book through Unbound, in this case the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death), written by an unknown hand in c.1400.

If you would like to pledge for your own limited edition copy, with your own name in the back as a supporter, please click here.


More images of Pennard Castle…


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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Castles, Castles of Wales, Gawain and the Green Knight, Historic places to visit in Britain, King Arthur, South Wales, Touring Britain, Welsh History

Brentor on Dartmoor by foot and on high


Church of St Michael of the Rock, Brentor

Church of St Michael of the Rock, Brentor, Dartmoor, Devonshire

Up out of Tavistock,      along the straight road,

We come now to Brentor      bold like a stark thumb

As it stands above Dartmoor      alone dark and brooding;

A church there for years,     challenging and cheerless.

Yet climb with me stranger     with stout legs and striding,

Let your boots bound on boulders     till you get to the top,

And there you’ll find solace     with blowing winds blasting

Against the tight granite     which grips God’s home here.

Push that door smartly     for it scrapes the flat stones

Of the entrance to this place     which is dark inside;

Fear not the cold gloom     or your eyesight in gloaming

For warm welcome breath     sweet blows on your face

Of the grace and the glory     of those gone before

Who made this place special     to prick at your soul!

Glass of Saint Michael,     great granite font,

Monuments left      to those lost long ago;

Plain yet so precious     these simple-formed things

Hold you in their grasp     almost weeping in pain

As they tell of their stories     of lives long since spent

And once lived in the cold     before you were alive.

I Pray now in penitence     for sport I have made

In blissful unknowing     of blood shed and blown

In the tors of old Dartmoor     tight-lipped and unspoken

But placed on these walls     that speak now to me and

Don’t hide.

Brentor upon its rock

Is for miles like a guide

Helping travellers to unlock

That wind-blown countryside.


The church of St Michael of the Rock (St Michael de Rupe) at Brentor, Devonshire, stands 1100 feet above sea level on an extinct volcanic cone, the prominence of which has long attracted people to the site. The base of the main rock is surrounded by the remains of an Iron Age hill fort.

The church itself, diminutive by any standard and most likely some form of chantry chapel, was established by Robert Giffard in the 12th Century although much of this has long since disappeared, being enlarged and rebuilt over the centuries. Much of what we see today dates from the 13th and 15th centuries although with considerable restoration in the nineteenth century which has obscured a great deal of the early work at the site.

Elements of the original building survive in the form of the font, of plain type, which dates from the fifteenth century and the tower. The exterior also includes an unusual sun dial on the southern face of the tower; curiously the church, despite its diminutive size, retains a door on its northern and southern sides.

For more details, please see the Historic England listing here

Coming soon by the Author:

Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – different to those which will appear in the bookshops – please click here

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King Arthur’s Hall; all roofless and wind-blown


Image of King Arthur's Hall, Cornwall

The remains of King Arthur’s Hall on Bodmin Moor. The “Hall” is thought to be a Bronze Age ceremonial centre for cremation although some argue that it was a pound for animals.

Into Cornwall I climb seeking comfort from winds

Among lower levels of that lofty moor Bodmin;

Through fields richly-flanked by leaves of fair green

I come up to Blisland by blowing moor’s edge.

In that soft church I sit to regain of my senses

With its vault above me which arches twice vast

And shouts of Agincourt when its arcs were stretched

On shield-bearing angels, their wings wafting high

And sailing in joy over scenes from the centuries.

Rested, I rise onto Gringolet’s saddle

Who carries me slow up ascents to the moor

And there in the blowing wind blasting my body

And sharp-shafting showers that strike to the soul

I see that square building which bold sits in bog-land;

King Arthur’s Hall it is known in Kernow.

Yet no knight knows that place, not to my knowing,

The years have long passed that parsed of its purpose

And my uncle Arthur never nursed in that place

Ideas of adventure to alter his aims

For the season, or Christmas, or sweet holidays.

It is but a pound to pen but some sheep or maybe a place to bury

The dead.

Surrounded by gorse and granite stones

That Hall it must be said

Just now sits square in moors alone,

Its story long unread.

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Cornwall, English Counties, English Landscape, English myths and legends, French Battlefields, Gawain and the Green Knight, Historic places to visit in Britain, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Touring Britain, Uncategorized

Swinside: Stone Sentinels of Past Centuries


Swinside Stone Circle, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Cumbria

Travelling, Le Gringalet has called me to Lancashire and Cumberland in my cause;
My horse lifts me high upon heath and mighty on mound
Through lofty lowlands and limp inlets sandy on Furness fallow.
Climbing now with Morcambe bay massive on my left shoulder
I soon rise to fields thrashed by winds, throttling life and thrusting sheep against walls
Where now we reach a circle stoney, standing guard sternly:
Swinside, the sunkenkirk, swept by swarming blasts, many stones sleeping close to the ground.

When I walked here last on the warmest of days under King Richard
These stones still stood circular and knowledge was dim as to their purpose.
And nothing now has changed save the passing of the years from one new one to the next.
Yes, more of this henge no longer hangs but hugs the soil where wind has pushed it
But whether warm to the ground or still windswept and upright
These robust stones remain in their entirety from my day and before.

What celebration have they seen in the years they stood?
What flushed face of youth feebly withstood young love here?
What women grew round and with birth gave the earth?
What men fought fights for far-flung tribal rites?
Did Romans see, stare and set apart?
Did Norman knights ennoble themselves through nuance of connection?
Did woman out of wedlock worry in tears for her child?

These stone sentinels of past centuries have seen it all:
The clasped hands of heaving lovers; the glistening eyes of sorrow;
The last sight of a land once loved by men away to foreign wars;
The coming and going of the seasons, from sweet to sweat;
The growing old of children, as childhood became but yesterday
And men grew weary, weeping for the youth they’d squandered.

Swindside is a site of yesterdays, steward of memories and holding them in its silent grasp:
If we could know its secrets we would without melancholy accept our fate
But yet the passage of time slips through our fingers and from our feeble grasp
And with it we see our lives pass by as particles of sand sieved with fumbling futility.
Swinside with certainty in its silent ways sways us to reflection
On how we lead our lives.

As we journey on our way, take care;
Our errors cause much pain.
But if through all our acts we’re fair
Our honour will remain.

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The Cittie beneath the Ocean sits and sleeps


image of sign at Dunwich cliffs

A simple sign reveals the futility of man’s struggle against the seas at Dunwich, Suffolk

Flood flow and fluvium flings the shingle shore sharply in the waves
As here at Dunwich my horse has homed me thus.
But behold the sea! Battering swells have swung the swarming throng
That I knew well when Bigod was bigging and boasting way back then
And cast them to the corners of the earth leaving but the calm of beach and boat!
For where once was town there now be but waves.

Image of JMW Turner's painting of Dunwich

Dunwich as captured by JMW Turner – when this picture was painted, the wreck of Dunwich was still returning 2 MPs to Parliament even though a handful of people lived in the constituency.

Dunwich, greatest of the citties of the East, a Suffolk surety
Against the predations of France and proudly preaching its excellence
At those pretenders Orford, Blythburgh and Walton – sea towns, sea men and sea bound.
If I listen, I can hear the homesteads and high spirits of merchant, monk and merry man!
If I cast my eye it walks down webs of wicker and wattle, warming on women who weave in the yards!
There was power here once – parliament itself was propped by Clerk and Brantham;
Precursors of a poisoned politik portrayed as but rotten by 1832.

What wrought the stones and crushed them to cobbles clacking?
The sea! The German Ocean, the great North Sea! Smooth swell but swarming.
This sea looks brown as is moves in shallow sands murmuring;
Voices cry from its depths, bells toll to unseen ears, unhearing now and unholy.
Storms moved with menace mightily down this coast and men did quake but to behold them!

Defoe knew well how windmills burned in woe as winds whipped sails beyond endurance.
But the mighty winds of Maurus mocked the men before his time
And more blows too did the cheeks of God bustle forth in His anger at our vanity!

Image of old Dunwich

Dunwich collapses into the sea; today nothing remains of this church

He shut off the river and rendered town rudderless;
Churches were cast to the earth in Middle Age and modern time:
Slowly they succumbed: St James; St Peter’s; St Nicholas; All Saints –
And more! Street by street, the sea sucked away the sand and slurped up the people.

Today a monastery in ruins stands upon the cliffs marking time, making friends.
It knows that like its brothers long ago its boldness will be but bluster
When the waves come to call one last time to waft it to the waters.
Look closely at those cliffs and clear you’ll see the bones of cloistermen
Long gone from Greyfriars, growing from the soil, groaning in lament
Of a time when land loyally lapped their lair, a haven high.

Yet for years all was not lost! Young was its spirit as it clung to old privilege!
In arrogance, this undersea urchin still with unction sent its London members
Till with Great Reform even this last vestige of its vain power was vanquished
In the name of democracy. And duped thus Dunwich died – a footnote to a finer time.
Now, a few houses on a street end sit, stumps of a place once superior now silent
As an English village supping beer in sleepy Suffolk while, just beyond, the old cittie sings
Among the fish, the flounder and the foaming horse.

When we with vanity talk of power
And at our mirrors crow
Just simply think of Dunwich tower
And know which way you’ll go.

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Iconography at Ickleton illuminates the passing of the hours


Image of Ickleton church

Ickleton Church, Cambridgeshire showing cantilevered arm on spire holding bell

And so with summer comes Zephyrus soothing warm
from the west as I on Gringolet to Ickleton go
In Cambridgeshire, calming as I carve my way
through Essex easily on my errand searching.
A singular spire with suspended bell sounds
And later windows let light within
On earlier ecstasy lost till that empty day
Forty years ago when fire freed paintings
From a plastered prison put there by puritans
To save the soul and salvage it from popery.
But truth will trick out of any tainted cage
And here on walls full thick are wonders for the wayfarer:
The last supper seating saints on bounteous board,
The betrayal where brutally He was brought down;
Andrew sainted on a saltire steady, the martyrdom
of Peter depicted perfectly and St Laurence too;
Our Lord in flagellation not fearing for his fate
and then with cross our Christ cries in crucifixion.

Image of the doom painting, Ickleton church, Cambridgeshrie

The astonishing doom painting at Ickleton Church, Cambridgeshire. Most of the painting has long since disappeared but a particular feature of this image is a bare-breasted Mary (left) – a sign of supplication.

But raise your eyes now to that Chancel rich and rare:
A doom painting dominates but delights
For here is Mary bare-breasted in blatant supplication –
Find this in other church, a challenge to chasten
All but the most patient of travellers in our land;

A church here do not miss –
Walls and features grand.
There are few here such as this
That really come to hand.

 

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In Devon banks down darkest lanes, bench ends beguiling


Bench end showing Death at Abbotsham Church

Death waits at Abbotsham – a reminder to all who sit in churches and elsewhere that their time will come

In different counties different downs roll deep their view to unravel, and so it was in Devonshire I rode on good Le Gringalet in search of things distinctive to pass away my hours.

Here is a most green of counties, a shire of verdant vibrancy in normal times yet cast brown by our long winter, spent as it was indoors before flame and fire avoiding of the freeze without. Never had I seen this county thus before yet clear it was before me now – and cold.

No ruby red, no cream upon the scone nor cheese crusty set upon my trencher. So into darker fields Le Gringalet led me towards two old parishes I thought I knew me well, named Abbotsham and High Bickington. What changes here since last I rode with Arthur in warmer days, wafting through lands and away on our hunting!

Abbotsham now by Appledore is closer, accreted such by dwellings that its once famed views of Torridge’s effluxion have now but eased below the eaves of roof tops many. Yet that church still it stands though starkly, so afflicted as it is by the varied violations of Victorian scrapers. But inside, what wares to while away the surface of your eyes!

This church, most charmless and cheap from outside yet once within giveth of its gifts with generosity unbounded: a bevy of bench-ends becoming and becalming at one and the same time. Look here at Death, his scythe he settles on we see. And there a workman wrapped forever in a woven bracket carved from wood. On another, Our Lord laughed at by later vandals is defaced upon the cross while too another bench blows mischief at some bounder riding backwards on his bay.

Bench ends are here distinctive while high above old faces beam, fragile survivors of all the worst of favours that those in Victoria’s reign could through upon their fame…

So let us move inland now to Old Devon where country folk, changed though they have, speak calmly as in all centuries they have and as, with God’s grace, they shall in future do. Let us ride out to High Bickington, remote and blowy on its rising ground bold standing in its grip of green damp grasping.

Here is a church much as I remembered it! A church charming and cheery despite the cheese of green decay which now impregnates its stones. In this church silent you can sit and hear the wind, a-feared as God Himself intended by the howling of the wind which did in centuries past cast down the spire of Norwich on St Maurus day.

In this damp room of sanctuary sleepy let settle your eyes in the gloom and touch those things my fingers brushed in centuries gone by. A sad remnant of a decorated carving – a rood screen perhaps long gone? Glass glistening and gold in places growing older and more faint by the years as Godless and unholy men predate the world without.

Yet more bench ends beckon and these beguile as well they should. Chanting singers sweetly sound in silence, four in a row; on another a Landsckecht, loosely ribboned loiters ready to work for whosoever wafts coin his way. Headless creatures hunted by the horrid in puritan times are hacked to faceless now, their forms only faring better through lack of subsequent protrusion. And finally, chance a man from China? No – this praying penitent points palms upwards as pigtail pony-like points back; a headdress of more humble times harks in the silence of the stones and tiles.

Let us leave these places now to sleep some more and centuries see out. It saddens me to think them sentinels of a silent age but still they stand and stoutly too, carrying their message to newer people long after I have left these lands and am but dust upon the earth.

In fields which still to me are there

from times when last I walked

I visited them once again to stare

And still to me they talked

Up in the roof space, an old face looks down at Abbotsham

Up in the roof space, an old face looks down at Abbotsham

Bench end Abbotsham

At Abbotsham, one of a number of such designs in other churches in Devon – a man bent double for all time

Primitive face carvings on a bench end at Abbotsham, Devon

Primitive face carvings on a bench end at Abbotsham, Devon

Image of the font at Abbotsham

Wonderfully carved fluted font at Abbotsham, Devon

Image of Death on a bench end at Abbotsham

Death at Abbotsham – the scythe had long since gone although parts of it remain if you look carefully

Image of Death on bench end at Abbotsham church

Here you can see the fuller bench end at Abbotsham, showing the design above Death.

Image of bench end at Abbotsham church showing instruments of the Passion

This image shows craftsmens’ tools carved into a bench end at Abbotsham. These may be connected to the Passion

Image of a bench end at Abbotsham church

Interesting curved forms on a bench end at Abbotsham

Image showing Norman door at High Bickington

The ancient Norman doorway at High Bickington Church, Devon

Image of early bench end at High Bickington Church

This bench end appears to have been cut into pieces – there are two other portions elsewhere in the church

Image of defaced bench end at High Bickington

A damaged bench end, probably defaced in the Puritan period at High Bickington

Image of Another animal bench end at High Bickington

Another damaged animal, headless.

Singers on a bench end at High Bickington

This image shows four singers. The “feathers” emerging from their mouths represent singing.

image of Landscknecht bench end at High Bickington

An image of a renaissance German mercenary or landsknecht. It is interesting that the person who carved this must have travelled abroad.

image of mediaeval carving at High Bickington

This fragment is all that remains of a much larger earlier piece. Nothing else remains at the church

image of The font, High Bickington

This wonderful font has an attractive ropework base and classic early mediaeval decoration.

image of man in pigtail on bench end at High Bickington

This image is said to represent someone from China but in fact the headdress is late mediaeval.

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