Sally Pomme Clayton is a storyteller and writer, and visited Tŷ Newydd in September 2019 to take part in the Storytelling Retreat. Here, she writes about her experiences.
Eric Maddern and Hugh Lupton have been running a storytelling retreat at Tŷ Newydd for over 25 years. A group comes together for a week to explore an aspect of myth, and in particular its relation to the local landscape. Many retreats have focused on Welsh myth, especially the Mabinogion. Tŷ Newydd sits in a landscape that is strikingly rich in archaeology. Each year Eric and Hugh take the group to visit ancient sites hidden in the surrounding hills, mountains and coastline that are steeped in story. This year the theme of the retreat was ‘The Goddess and her Consorts’, something they had not explored before. I really wanted to be part of it, as my own practise as a storyteller has focused on female archetypes. I have created performances with Hugh and Eric in the past, but the unique nature of this course means it is open to everyone, whatever their level of experience. Because the retreat focuses on content rather than technique, each person is able to dive into the subject in their own way.
We explored patterns of goddess myths, finding images that re-occur across cultures, languages, continents: maiden; mother; crone; creator; destroyer. We explored some of the possible meanings the myths might have had for those who told and lived them. Our guest speaker was Ana Adnan who gave an exhilarating, whistle-stop critique, via the mouth of the Minotaur, of those who have written about myth and analysed it. She questioned their ‘truth’ and ‘fact’, urging readers to place the collectors of stories within the context of their time, to see how a collection reflects its environment. In the end it seemed that all we have is fragments. But storytellers love these left-over fragments and have always re-made their own truths from them. The group wandered around local paths, planning small ritual performances for the ancient sites we would visit. I made a wreath from tendrils of honeysuckle found on the riverbank.
I placed it inside Neolithic burial mound, Bryn Celli Ddu, on Anglesey island. This mysterious, beautiful place has been constructed so that midsummer sun illuminates the grave. There is a rare decorated stone standing beside it, beneath which a single human bone was found –the tiny bone of the inner ear. Were the ancestors listening to us, as we tried to listen to them?
Eric made the landscape come alive, naming hills and mountains, making invisible relationships visible, pointing to hidden sites where the remains of ancient Neolithic and Iron Age dwellings still exist. We visited Llyn Cerrig Bach where many Iron Age objects were discovered, thrown into the lake as offerings. We met Eflyn Owen-Jones, who was a little girl when her father found the objects in the 1940s. She showed us pictures of some of the objects, and described their use, including how ropes were made of honeysuckle! I had instinctively done what our ancestors had been doing for thousands of years!
As the sun set, and the wind blew up, we climbed Holyhead Mountain, and looked all the way back to the mountains of Snowdonia and the Llŷn Peninsula.
One evening, Jo Blake came and performed her storytelling piece ‘Blodeuwedd Untold’, which had its genesis at Hugh and Eric’s retreat ten years earlier. Her performance experiments with form, movement, structure, and genre. We had a fascinating discussion afterwards, where Jo generously shared her experiences of the process of making and re-making this courageous performance. It was inspiring for the group and challenged and changed their own stories.
Hugh delicately helped the group create and develop their stories. He brought multiple versions of myths and piles of irresistible books for us to draw on, working with the group on structure and image. The stories were shared by the fireside at Dafydd Davies-Hughes’ Felin Uchaf roundhouse. Perhaps these stories too will turn into bigger performances in the future.
Being part of this storytelling community was so enriching. I felt renewed and my story well filled. I am grateful to Tŷ Newydd for supporting storytelling and storytellers for all these years. As an oral art form, storytelling is so often the Cinderella of literature, but Tŷ Newydd give it space and value. Next year’s retreat will explore creation myths – get the date in your diary now!