Friday, September 19, 2014

Fort Process

Musical performance and sound art installation come together in site-specific festivals like the one I attended on Saturday at Newhaven Fort, 'Fort Process', or the TÖNE Festival in June, originally planned for Chatham Dockyard (the review in this month's Wire magazine explains that it ended up split over several venues).  From the perspective of this blog, what interests me in these is the way invited artists work with the structure and history of a site and the extent to which the wider soundscape is incorporated in the audience's experience.  Newhaven Fort is a defensive structure - one of Palmerston's follies, completed in 1871 - and as such it encloses you from the wider landscape.  Sound pieces were located underground and many of the performances took place in enclosed, bunker-like enclosed spaces.  The small main stage was set up on the parade ground in the centre of the fort, surrounded on all sides by grass embankments, giving a sense of containment and isolation.  To see out we had to climb these slopes and stand where the guns once pointed seawards, the vantage point where Eric Ravilious sketched Newhaven's coastal defences in 1940 (a few months after he had been stationed at Chatham).  

Eric Ravilious, Coastal Defences, 1940

John Butcher's contribution to Fort Process felt symptomatic of the way the site's remnants of fortification influenced the sounds we heard.  I wrote here eight years ago about an outdoor performance he did at the Standing Stones of Stenness, when the local sheep joined in with their bleating and the wind played tunes on his amplified soprano saxaphone.  Based on this I had imagined we might watch him perform on the ramparts of the fort, blowing his horn towards the English Channel while sea birds wheeled above.  Instead, while the sun set over the Downs on what had been a beautiful warm day, we gathered to listen to his improvisations on the cold concrete floor of a room once used to store gunpowder and shells.  Earlier, one of the artists (Sara Jane Glendinning) tried to entice seagulls to land on switch pads connected to sound samples, but they were strangely resistant to landing near the old gun emplacements.  At the end of the day we were in an old World War II hut, watching the start of an explosive set by Steve Noble and Peter Brötzmann (best known for his 1968 free jazz album Machine Gun). As the sound clattered off the corrugated iron roof it was easy to imagine the soldiers stationed here during World War II, listening to the bombers heading out to sea. 

As a collection of disparate artists linked only be location, this kind of event inevitably differs from an immersive theatre performance or the kind of multimedia environmental drama pioneered by Robert Wilson.  It was impossible to see everything - in addition to the sound art and performances there were talks and some interesting-sounding film works (sadly the projector broke down before we could see any of these).  The photograph below was taken during a performance of Fourfleckflock, a graphical score based on the motion of starlings.  I was interested in music like this with a landscape/nature connection (Thomas Köner showed that you don't need drums when you've sampled the sound of thunder) but was just as happy listening to Ex-Easter Island Head and Part Wild Horses Mane on Both Sides.  There was time to wander round and look at the art, installed inside tunnels and gun towers - some new, some versions of existing work so that the interest for the artist will have been in seeing how their pieces were transformed in this particular setting.  Sarah Angliss brought a collection of little mobile robots to the Fort's Laboratory, where live shells were once constructed.  Their bells, rung in alarm when they encountered walls and doorsteps, had a pleasing, gentle quality when heard from a distance.  Not something you could say of Noble and Brötzmann, whose gunfire followed us for some distance as we headed out of the fort during their set to get the train back to London... 

Friday, September 12, 2014

American Smoke


It was the season of autumn ghosts, a dampness in the soul.  November 2013.  I stopped outside the sea cadets building in Stoke Newington's Church Street, now re-purposed as an exhibition space: 'building-F'.  In the old bricks there were ghost traces of a painted sign: S S OKE.  The roof was an abandoned deck with white railings and a solitary flag pole.  Looking down at the street, a life-size photograph of J. G. Ballard.  In the new front window, a neat stack of Iain Sinclair's American Smoke.  Inside I was hoping to encounter the man himself, having heard that he would be selling off his old books for a limited period.  But there was no sign of him: just framed artwork and a bookcase filled almost entirely with his own publications, signed and annotated, with prices to match. Ridiculous, I now realise, to imagine he would be there in person, presiding over tables stacked with the remnants of his book selling days: paperbacks by overlooked London writers, pulp novelists, underground poets.  I lingered awhile - not buying anything felt like an affront to the couple from Test Centre who politely stood by as I looked at the shelves.  Eventually I left with a book of poems: Firewall.


American Smoke begins in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Sinclair went to deliver a lecture on Charles Olson, 'poet, scholar and last rector of Black Mountain College'.  There he met Henry Ferrini, whose film on Olson I included in a post here on the Maximus Poems back in 2010.  He visited Dogtown, where Olson came and walked in the woods 'to refine the art of getting creatively lost'.  He even booked a tourist whale-watching cruise (assuring us that 'the excursion was being made for my wife'). Olson's first book, published in 1947, was a study of Moby Dick.  The boat trip cancelled, he headed for the local library, looking for Olson's marginalia in books that had found their way onto the stacks after his death.  He says he found rough notes for a poem in the endpapers of one volume (much harder to decipher than the text Sinclair added to his own books for the pop-up shop in Stoke Newington).  Back in London he was pleased to have 'absorbed some of the weather of the place' but realised in watching Ferrini's film again that Olson can only be experienced in the energy field of his poems.

My landscape interest in American Smoke had been kindled by Sinclair's account of a journey to see Gary Snyder, published initially as an essay in the LRB.  Snyder evaded discussion of poetics but was happy to talk about logging, ecological threats and the day-to-day work needed to maintain the land he bought cheaply in 1966: 'a hundred acres of manzanita thickets, with open stretches of ponderosa pine, black oak, cedar, madrone, Douglas fir, bunchgrass...'
'Taking responsibility for a portion of Sierra ridge, once occupied, river valley to densely forested upper slopes, by Indian tribes, was a major statement of intent from Snyder. ‘We were cash poor and land rich,’ he said. ‘And who needs more second-growth pine and manzanita?’ Alexander Pope, in his upstream exile at Twickenham, laid out garden and grotto as a conceit, an extension of his work into the world, and a powerful attractor for patrons and lesser talents. To fund the Sierra reinhabitation, as Snyder saw it, he took on reading tours and an academic position at UC Davis, fifty miles down the road near the state capital, Sacramento. He called his land Kitkitdizze, after the Wintu Indian name for the aromatic shrub known as bear clover. ...  This Thoreau-inspired wilderness encampment, real as it appears, is underwritten by the requirement to represent itself as a topic for thesis writers, a reluctant paradigm.  A magnet for approved visitors, students, localists, or anyone needing to understand if this thing can be managed: a self-funding, functioning centre that is not a retreat, but a resettlement...'
The whole book is structured around these encounters with writers, living and dead: Corso in New York, Burroughs in Kansas, the grave of Malcolm Lowry in Sussex.  From Vancouver, Sinclair goes to the Burrard Inlet in search of the shack Lowry and his wife constructed from driftwood and sawmill lumber.  It was a kind of idyll - described as such in some beautiful passages in Under the Volcano - and Sinclair visits the spot on a crystalline morning.  He is led along a winding path through resinous woodland, down to the shore.  Lowry had enjoyed the view here, across the water to an oil refinery where the S had fallen from the word SHELL.  Sinclair is tempted to go in - 'I'd like to swim, the water is strobing gold' - but he paddles instead in the cold, sharp-stoned shallows.  There is an old bottle top glinting in the water - not Lowry's, but something to pick up and take away.

Friday, September 05, 2014

A Journey to Avebury


There are two days left on the iPlayer to listen to an episode of Stuart Maconie's Radio 6 show on 'West Country Freaks' which includes some music specifically inspired by the landscape of Southwest England.  A few days before the broadcast I was actually in the West Country myself, about to visit the Avebury stone circle on our way back to London.  We stuck to our plan despite forecast heavy rain because I had worked it all out in advance with pleasing symmetry, to echo the stop-off at Stonehenge on our earlier journey west.  There had been rain in the air then too, giving some dramatic skies over the old stones, as you can see in my photograph above. Ah, Sonehenge... 'where a man's a man and the children dance to the Pipes of Pan'.  Spinal Tap's classic song was included in 'West Country Freaks', along with Coil's soundtrack to the early Derek Jarman film A Journey to Avebury (embedded from YouTube below).


Another band featured on the programme were Neil Mortimer's Urthona, whose blog records various visits to stone circles.  'From The Godless Erme Valley' was an outtake from their 2008 release via Julian Cope's Head Heritage, 'I Refute It Thus.'  This comprised 'three long tracks of primitive noise guitar freakouts inspired by the windswept-tor landscape of mighty Dartmoor, and a retort to the doom-laden cultural landscape of 21st century Britain.'  It came 'packaged in a unique organic fold-out cover plus inserts and highfalutin liner notes with nods to William Blake, Richard Jefferies and Walt Whitman.'  Their latest album is inspired by the great storm of 1703 ('no pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it', according to Daniel Defoe).  In his review for Wire Joseph Stannard likens it to Flying Saucer Attack's 'Rainstorm Blues', which I mentioned in a post here a few years ago.



FSA were based in Bristol and their 'Sea Corpus', from the limited edition 1996 release 'In Search Of Spaces', was also included in 'West Country Freaks'.  Two other tracks on the show are worth highlighting: 'Somerset' by the prolific ambient composer and artist Rutger Zuydervelt (Machinefabriek) and 'Piperspool' from John Surman's 1990 ECM album The Road to St Ives.  I had not checked out this St Ives album before, despite having visited several times in recent years and written here about the town's art and landscape. However, after returning from the Lake District a few months ago, I was listening to Ambleside Days - another John Surman album where each track relates to a specific place. I think these gentle jazz tunes were insufficiently experimental to feature on an earlier place-themed Freakier Zone covering the North West, which included a great interview with Richard Skelton.  Given Stuart Maconie's enthusiasm for fell walking and landscape, it would be worth looking out for more of these programmes in the future.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Stourhead

 

When we arrived at our Somerset B&B en route to Wales I told the owner we had chosen to break our journey there to visit the landscape garden at Stourhead.  "That's it over there" she said, pointing out of our bedroom at a distant tower rising above the trees on the horizon.  While the garden itself was hidden from view on the other side of the hill, this outlying folly 'took dominion everywhere', turning the wider countryside in the warm evening light of late August into the kind of ideal Claudian landscape admired by the tower's creator, Henry Hoare II.  The following morning we drove the short distance to see it.  King Alfred's Tower was completed in 1772, having been conceived a decade earlier with multiple patriotic intentions: to mark the end of the Seven Year's War, the succession of George III and the place where Alfred rallied his Saxon army to defeat the Danes at the Battle of Ethandun.  I was not that surprised to find the door locked, preventing us climbing its 205-step staircase to admire the view - I mentioned here a similar experience at Hadrian's belvedere in Tivoli earlier this year.  It was frustrating though, and I fantasised about returning, kitted out like an urban explorer, to just break in and climb up anyway.  Perhaps I should start travelling the country at weekends, 'place hacking' other National Trust properties...?  Just as I was starting to imagine the possibilities I was subjected to urgent requests for coffee and cake, and so we drove off to find the tearooms.


In his book The Arcadian Friends Tim Richardson describes Stourhead in terms of the circuit one was expected to take in the eighteenth century.  The first viewpoint provided 'a vista across the lake to the circular, domed Temple of Apollo high above, its tall columns accentuating its height, with the medieval church and village of Stourton in the middle ground below, and to the left on smooth sward.'  The eclecticism of the landscape was therefore apparent immediately - Gothick and classical in one view.  Stourhead has no overriding narrative and while there clearly is symbolism in some of its statues and inscriptions, the design more closely resembles a painting - 'a charming Gaspd picture' in the words of Henry Hoare.  Setting off on my own circuit of the garden I found myself experiencing a gallery of views framed in foliage, like the one I photographed below, where the eye is drawn across the lake to the temple of Apollo and then beyond to the distant countryside.


After descending to the lake, the garden's original visitors would have continued over a mildly perilous fretwork bridge (no longer extant) and then through a woodland path to the grotto.  This rather dank 'house of the nymphs' inevitably recalls Dr Johnson's quip that a grotto was indeed am appealingly cool habitation in the summer, "for a toad".  Within it you can still admire the landscape, where gaps resembling the mouths of caves create views over the lake to the Temple of Flora.  Emerging from the semi-darkness you ascend to the Pantheon, a remarkably beautiful design that must have improved with age (all Stourhead's temples are mottled with patches of lichen - the example below is from the Temple of Apollo).  The Pantheon was shut up so we were unable to go in and see the statue of Hercules, whose biceps were modelled by sculptor Michael Rysbrack on studies of the eighteenth-century prize fighter Jack Broughton, but we were able to admire the Callipygian Venus in a niche outside.  This figure, the 'Venus of the beautiful buttocks', is derived from an old Greek story of two sisters who asked a man to assess which of them had the finer bottom.  It is a timeless story, recently replayed for the digital age in online newspaper reports of the competing 'belfies' posted on Instagram by Kelly Brook and Kim Kardashian.


Walking the garden circuit and then picnicking by the water, it was very apparent to me how important the lake is to Stourhead's landscape design.  You can see this in the first photograph below - a view taken from the convex slope leading up to the Pantheon - where my son seems to be watching the drama of the clouds play out on the screen of the lake.  Ripples break the reflections of trees into horizontal strokes, as if the planting had been arranged to create a painting in light on the lake surface.  In Arcadian Friends Tim Richardson says that eighteenth century visitors would have been able to experience the garden from the lake itself, an option not normally available now, 'presumably for reasons of health and safety.  I had the opportunity of boating on the lake at Stourhead and it does constitute a completely different way of seeing a garden, as you bob along at the lowest level possible, enjoying constantly shifting perspectives of the temples and landscape scenes around.'   


The only person out on the lake when we were there was a man on a small dredger, clearing the water of pond weed.  He seemed unwilling to take a rest and the relentless noise of the engine made me wonder what the soundscape would have been like in Henry Hoare's day, with nothing louder than birdsong, fountains and the faint strains of music and conversation emanating from one of the temples.  Every few minutes, or so it seemed, a plane flew overhead; it would be impossible now to think of designing an arcadia secluded from the wider world.  Coming to the end of my circuit I re-entered the woods where I had left the others, following the happy sound of children's voices.  It was 'Forest Friday' and my sons were queueing to climb up ropes into the canopy of the old trees.  Equipped with hard hats they slowly made their way up as I watched, a little enviously, from the 'soft mossy turf' (as novelist Samuel Richardson described the grass here in 1757).  And so, after finding ourselves prevented from ascending King Alfred' tower, the boys at least were permitted a privileged  prospect of the garden.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A hedge of rain to hinder my good fortune


I was reading Dafydd ap Gwilym in a Welsh wood last week.  Many of his nature poems were addressed to a llaitai - love-messenger - like the seagull or the skylark.  As Jay Griffiths wrote in her essay, 'The Grave of Dafydd', 'he sung himself into the land, asking birds, animals and the wind to carry messages to all his well-beloveds.  More yet: the now-printed words echo the print of his body on the land, as he tells of the way that the places where he made love, the crushed leaves and grass, the bed-shapes under the saplings, will remain imprinted on the landscape forever, and on the landscapes of the heart.'

Those trysting places were not always accessible though - sometimes nature thwarted Dafydd's desires.  Finding the River Dyfi in spate he composed a song in its praise in the hope that it would allow him to cross.  On another day it was mist that descended just as the poet was setting out for a liaison with a slender maid.  Here are some lines from the translation of Y Niwl ('The Mist') by Rachel Bromwich (from my book, pictured above, sadly no longer in print).  Even in English I think they convey a vivid sense of fog on the Welsh landscape.


But there came Mist, resembling night,
across the expanse of the moor,
a parchment-roll, making a black-cloth for the rain,
coming in grey ranks to impede me
like a tin sieve that was rusting,
a snare for birds on the black earth,
a murky barrier on a narrow path,
an endless coverlet to the sky,
a grey cowl discolouring the ground,
placing in hiding every hollow valley,
a scaffolding that can be seen on high,
an enormous bruise over the hill, a vapour on the land,
a thick and pale-grey, weakly-trailing fleece,
like smoke, a hooded cowl upon the plain,
a hedge of rain to hinder my good fortune,
coat-armour of the oppressive shower.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow


This autumn the Royal Academy will have a major retrospective exhibition for Anselm Kiefer.  Back in the eighties, when I was a teenager and first discovering contemporary art, Kiefer was a really big name.  In fact there were a group of German artists that seemed almost as well known as the Americans: Beuys, Baselitz, Polke, Richter (these last two had a nice joint show in London earlier this year).  In those days Robert Hughes would write witheringly about the latest stars of the New York art scene but considered Kiefer the best painter of his generation.  Then came Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory (1995) - familiar I'm sure to readers of this blog - which discussed Kiefer's work in relation to the German forest.  But since then it has seemed as if he has faded into the background somewhat as waves of new artists have come to the fore.  When I have thought of him, it has been to imagine him still holed up in the south of France, where he moved in 1992, gradually turning an old silk factory and its surroundings into a vast Gesamtkunstwerk.  However, watching Sophie Fiennes' documentary on Kiefer recently, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010), it was obvious that he remains a massive presence in the global art world.  The film ends with his relocation to Paris and Kiefer looking forward to easy motorway access to Germany and a large studio that had once been the depository for the La Samaritaine department store.

In 2008 Sean O'Hagan went to interview Keifer for The Guardian, apprehensive about the artist's reputation for high seriousness.  Kiefer, 'as Schama memorably puts it, 'doesn't do droll, he does the big embarrassing stuff, the stuff that matters; the epic slaughters of the world, the incineration of the planet, apocalypse then, apocalypse now; the fragile endurance of the sacred amid the cauterised ruins of the earth.''  O'Hagan met him in Paris where he was working on ten seascapes simultaneously - ''When I started these paintings just before Christmas, I had the initial concept of painting the source of the Rhine. Now, you can see the Rhine is gone completely. There is only sea."  Despite its vast scale, the Paris studio was proving too small for him.  Meanwhile La Ribaute, the studio complex and environmental installation near Barjac that Kiefer had worked on for eleven years, was continuing to take shape in his absence.  O'Hagan travelled south to see it.  'Surrounded by a high wire fence, and accessed only by a huge steel security gate, it is a vast site that took me an afternoon to wander through. On one side of the hill on which stands his former studio, a converted 17th century silk factory, lies the valley of Babel-like towers, out of whose innards sprout plants resembling giant trioxids. It is utterly unreal and not a little unsettling, part post-apocalyptic city, part sci-fi film set.'


As you can see here in the trailer for Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, La Ribaute was both a factory for producing monumental landscape painting (a forest scene spread with ashes), and an evolving work of land art itself.  Philip French described the impression the film conveys in his review:
Fiennes's camera tracks slowly around its bunkers and underground passages with their pools of water, shattered urns, piles of broken glass, puzzling numbers on the walls that evoke the tattoos of concentration camp inmates and so on. Her visual style brings to mind the lengthy contemplative shots in Tarkovsky's Stalker, Nostalgia and The Sacrifice, and we think of blitzed cities, battlefields, the death camps, the post-industrial world and the impermanence of civilisation. The film's title is a quotation from the Bible and one inevitably remembers Eliot's line in The Waste Land: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins."
Perhaps the most memorable scene comes near the end where the camera rises slowly to reveal a vista of concrete towers under grey skies.  Earlier we see Kiefer directing their construction - he does it all by eye.  Two similar towers were built for an installation in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in 2009 and a laser was installed to detect the slightest movement and sound an alarm if it looked like they might be about to collapse (it never went off).  Fiennes says in the commentary to the film that this ruined landscape reminds her of modern war zones like Gaza.  It is sad to think that she would have been referring then to the 2008 conflict while as I write this there is a new war creating new ruins.  Now, again, we are watching footage of twisted metal, shattered glass, tunnel networks and concrete towers: the destruction of real buildings and real people's lives.

Friday, August 01, 2014

The Journey Through Wales

Medieval manuscript of The Journey Through Wales in the British Library

In the spring of 1188 Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, set out to travel through Wales recruiting men for the Third Crusade.  He was accompanied by Gerald, Archdeacon of Brecon, whose highly readable account of their journey, Itinerarium Kambriae (The Journey Through Wales, translated by Lewis Thorpe), contains many interesting references to nature and topography.  I have always liked the abecedary form (as in, for example, Kevin Jackson's collection of alphabetical essays Letters of Introduction) and have used it here to list some of the places, sites and unusual natural phenomena Gerald wrote about.  What follows therefore is an A-Z of the Welsh landscape towards the end of the twelfth century.

A is for Arthur's Chair.  A few days after setting out from Hereford, Gerald and Baldwin had reached Brecknockshire.  He describes there a 'lofty spot most difficult of access, so that in the minds of simple folk it is thought to have belonged to Arthur, the greatest and most distinguished King of the Britons'.  Cadair Arthur was the name given to this place, formed by two peaks (Pen y Fan and Corn Du), and at the summit there was a well-shaped pool, fed by a spring, in which trout were sometimes seen.  Gerald mentions King Arthur at several points, drawing on what Geoffrey of Monmouth had written in his History of the Kings of BritainMore intriguing are descriptions he gave in two later books of the discovery of Arthur's tomb, in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey (Glastonbury, he writes, was once called Ynys Gutrin, 'the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows around it in the marshland.')
B is for the island of Barry. 'In a rock by the sea where one first lands on the island there is a small crack. If you press your ear to it, you can hear a noise like blacksmiths at work.'  As will be seen below, Gerald usually has stories to associate with unusual landscape phenomena, but this one is simply recorded for what it is.  'One would well imagine that a sound of this sort would come from the sea-waters rushing into hidden orifices beneath the island, but it is no less loud when the waves draw back, and it can be heard just as well when the shore is dry as when the tide is up.'
C is for Caerleon.  The ancient City of the Legions, Caerleon 'is beautifully situated on the bank of the River Usk.  When the tide comes in, ships sail right up to the city.  It is surrounded by woods and meadows.  It was here that the Roman legates came to seek audience at the great Arthur's court.'  Gerald describes a lot more of the Roman city than can be seen today, including its impressive walls.  He found evidence of immense palaces, 'a lofty tower, and beside it remarkable hot baths, the remains of temples and an amphitheatre.' 
D is for St. David.  According to Gerald, this devout man (said to have been the uncle of king Arthur), 'preferring the eremetical existence to the pastoral one', moved the archbishopric from Caerleon, the City of the Legions, to 'a remote corner of the country, looking out towards the Irish Sea.  The soil is rocky and barren.  It has no woods, no rivers and no pasture-lands.  It is exposed to the winds and to extremely inclement weather.'  It was this alleged archbishopric, independent of Canterbury, that Gerald  himself strove unsuccessfully throughout his life to re-establish.  There was a story that Gerald includes in which St. David himself changed the landscape: one day 'in full view of an astonished congregation, the ground on which he was standing rose up in the air.'
E is for Eyri. 'I must not fail to tell you about the mountains which are called Eyri by the Welsh and by the English Snowdon, that is the Snow Mountains.'  Eyri means haunt of the eagles, and Gerald writes of one remarkable eagle that perches on a particular stone every fifth feast day, 'hoping to satiate its hunger with the bodies of dead men, for on that day it thinks that war will break out.  The stone on which it takes its stand has a hole pierced nearly through it, for it is there that the eagle cleans and sharpens its beak.'
F is for a floating island.  This can be found in the mountains of Snowdonia where the strong winds continuously blow it from one bank of a lake to another.  'Shepherds are amazed to see the flocks which are feeding there carried off to distant parts of the lake.  It is possible that a section of the bank was broken off in times long past and that, bound together in a natural way by the roots of the willows and other shrubs which grow there, it has since become larger by alluvial deposits.'
G is for the Golden Rock. This is 'a rocky eminence that dominates the River Severn' which has a gold sheen when struck by the sun. Gerald thinks that 'if someone who was skilled in such work would only dig down into the mineral deposits and penetrate the very entrails of the earth, he might extract sweet honey from the stone and oil from the rock.'
H is for hawk.  At Haverfordwest, the falcons are 'remarkable for their good breeding, and they lord it over the river birds and those in the open fields.'  Gerald concludes one chapter of the book with the story of how one of these noble birds killed Henry II's carefully bred Norwegian hawk.  'As a result from this year onwards Henry II always sent to this region at nesting-time for some of the falcons which breed on the sea-cliffs.  Nowhere in the whole kingdom could he find more noble or more agile birds.  That is enough about falcons.  Now I must return to my journey.' 
I is for the mountains of Ireland.  These can be seen on a clear day from St David's and Gerald writes that when William Rufus came to this spot and looked across the sea from the headland he said "I will collect a fleet together from my own kingdom and with it make a bridge, so that I can conquer that country."  Gerald himself had been in Ireland for a year, travelling there as chaplain and adviser to Prince John in 1185. The Journey Through Wales was Gerald's third book, written after two books on Ireland.
J is for Jerusalem. Gerald had himself taken the cross and his whole party expected to leave for the Holy Land when their mission in Wales was complete.  In 1189 he and Archbishop Baldwin sailed for France but Gerald was sent back to England by the new king Richard, following the death of Henry II.  Baldwin went on and died at the siege of Acre in 1190.  Two years earlier, as he and Gerald approached Bangor along a valley with many steep climbs, they had dismounted in order to practise walking in the exhausting conditions they expected to find on the road to Jerusalem.  'We walked the whole length of the valley and we were very tired by the time we reached the farther end.  The Archbishop sat himself down on an oak-tree, which had been completely uprooted and overturned by the force of the winds, for he needed to rest and recover his breath.'  He asked for a tune to soothe his tired ears and a bird in a near-by coppice started to sing.
K is for the knight and the King.  Gerald tells of 'a knight from Brittany' who was sent by Henry II to see how the land round Dinevor Castle was fortified.  He was conducted by a Welsh priest who took him along the most difficult and inaccessible paths.  'Whenever they passed through lush woodlands, to the great astonishment of all present, [the priest] plucked a handful of grass and ate it, thus giving the impression that in time of need the local inhabitants lived on roots and grasses.'  The knight reported to the King that the land was uninhabitable and the King made the local Welsh leader swear an oath of fealty but left him to his own affairs.
L is for Llanthony. Gerald praises the location of this monastery in the vale of Ewias, so suitable for a life of contemplation.  'As they sit in their cloisters in this monastery, breathing the fresh air, the monks gaze up at distant prospects which rise above their own lofty roof-tops, and there they see, as far as any eye can reach, mountain-peaks which rise to meet the sky and often enough herds of wild deer which are grazing on their summits.'
M is for Manorbier.  Gerald devotes a whole passage to the beautiful landscape surrounding the fortified mansion of Manorbier, visible from a distance on a hill near the sea.  'You will not be surprised to hear me lavish such praise upon it, when I tell you that this is where my family came from, this is where I myself was born.  I can only ask you to forgive me.'  He mentions a fish pond, an orchard, and a ready supply of wheat and wine.  'A stream of water which never fails, winds its way along a valley, which is strewn with sand by the strong sea-winds.'  There is a rocky headland: 'boats on their way to Ireland from almost any part of Britain scud by before the east wind, and from this vantage-point you can see them brave the ever-changing violence of the winds and the blind fury of the waters.'
N is for Newgale Sands Here in the winter of 1171-2 a great wind blew 'with such unprecedented violence that the shores of South Wales were completely denuded of sand, and the subsoil, which had been buried deep for so many centuries, was once more revealed.  Tree-trunks became visible, standing in the sea, with their tops lopped off, and with the cuts made by the axes as clear as if they had been felled yesterday.  The soil was pitch-black and the wood of the tree-trunks shone like ebony.'  This wind was so fierce that it blew fish into the bushes and high rocks, and people came down to collect them. 
O is for one-eyed fish. A lake among the mountains of Snowdonia 'abounds in three different kinds of fish, eels, trout and perch, and all of them have only one eye, the right one being there but not the left.  If the careful reader asks me the cause of such a remarkable phenomenon, I can only answer that I do not know.'
P is for the two pools that burst their banks.  This happened in the Elfael district on the night that Henry I died (1st December 1135).  One was artificial and its water simply rushed down the valley leaving it empty.  'But, remarkably enough, the natural lake reformed itself, with all its fish and whatever else lived in it, in a certain valley not more than two miles away.'   
Q is for quicksand.  Gerald and Baldwin took the coast road from Margam Abbey, fording the river Avon, where they were delayed by the ebbing water, and approached the river Neath.  There they encountered quicksand where Gerald's own pack-horse 'was almost sucked down into the abyss.'  They got him out, but 'not without some damage done to my books and baggage.'  Hurrying made things worse - 'it is better to advance more slowly and with great circumspection over such dangerous terrain as this.'  Eventually they made it to the Neath which they crossed in a boat since it was too dangerous to ford, 'for the passages through the river change with every monthly tide and they cannot be located after a heavy fall of rain.'
R is for Rhyd Pencarn.  Near Newport, Gerald describes a stream that is 'passable only be certain fords, more because of the way in which it has hollowed out its bed and of the muddiness of the marshland which surrounds it than through the depth of its waters.'  Rhyd Pencarn, the 'ford beneath the hanging rock', was the subject of a prophecy by Merlin Sylvester (Gerald believed there had been two Merlins in Wales - this one was Scottish).  Merlin had said that the Welsh would not be beaten by a strong man riding over it with a freckled face, a description that matched the appearance of Henry II.  When Henry did cross the ford in 1163, the Welshmen who watched his approach knew that they would be defeated.  
S is for the magic stone of Anglesey.  This stone in the shape of a human thigh-bone will always return no matter how far it is taken away.  Henry I tested it by throwing it into the sea, attached by chains to a much larger stone - the next morning it was back in its usual place.  'It is also said that if a couple come to have intercourse on this spot, or near by, which they do frequently, great drops of sweat drip from the stone.'  As will be clear by now, Gerald's Wales is scattered with strange rocks and stones.  Also on the island of Anglesey you can find Listener's Rock, and 'if you stand on one side and shout, no one on the other side can hear you.' 
T is for the river Teifi.  In describing this 'noble river', Gerald writes a lengthy digression on the habits of beavers, for this is the only place in Wales where they can be found.  These clever creatures plan their lodges so that they just protrude from the water, building several stories linked with connecting doorways.  'As the years pass and the willow-wands keep on growing, the lodge is constantly in leaf and becomes, in fact, a grove of willow trees, looking like a natural bush from the outside, however artificially constructed it may be within.'
U is for the river Usk Gerald says that salmon abound there in summer (whereas the Wye has them in winter).  The finest salmon in Wales can be found in the river Teifi and there is a spot there called Cenarth Mawr where a waterfall roars unceasingly and the fish leap the height of a tall spear into the concave rock above.  When Gerald and his companions reached Usk castle and preached the Crusade a large number of men took the cross, including robbers, highwaymen and murderers.  The road then took them to Newport via Caerleon and they had to cross the river Usk three times.
V is for the Valley of Roses. This was the site chosen for the cathedral of St David's.  Gerald observes that 'a better name for it would be the Valley of Marble, for it is in no sense rosy or remarkable for roses, whereas there are plenty of rocks all over the place.'  One of these rocks was used as a bridge over the River Alun and called Llech Lafar, the Talking Stone. One of the prophecies of Merlin held that a king of England who had just conquered Ireland would die as he walked over this bridge.  As he had at Rhyd Pencarn, Henry II defied this superstition by boldly walking forward.  Calling Merlin a liar, he entered the cathedral to pray and hear Mass.
W is for the waterfowl of Brecknock Mere.  There was an old saying that the rightful ruler of the land could order these birds to sing.  One winter Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Tewdwr (a great uncle of Gerald) did just this.  The water of this lake 'sometimes turns bright green, and in our days it has been known to become scarlet, not all over, but as if blood were flowing along certain currents and eddies.  What is more, those who live there sometimes observe it to be completely covered with buildings or rich pasture-lands, or adorned with gardens and orchards.  In the winter months, when it is covered with ice, and when the surface is frozen over with a smooth and slippery coat, it emits a horrible groaning sound, like the lowing of a vast herd of cattle all driven together in one place.  It is possible, of course, that this is caused by the cracking of the ice and the sudden violent eruptions of enclosed pockets of air through vents imperceptible to the eye.'
X is for Exmes.  Gerald's digressions occasionally take him outside Wales itself - Exmes is actually a castle in Normandy.  Near it there is a certain pool whose fish fought each other so violently on the night Henry II died, 'some in the water and some even leaping in the air, that the noise which they made attracted to the spot a vast crowd of local people.'  This story parallels that of the two pools in Wales (see 'P' above), associated with the death of Henry I. 
Y is for Ynys Lannog. This place, Priest's Island in English, lies off the coast of Anglesey.  Gerald says that if the hermits who live there quarrel, a species of mice who live there will come and consume most of their food and drink 'and befoul the rest.' When the argument is over the mice disappear. 'No women are ever allowed on the island.'
Z is for Zeuxis.  The Journey Through Wales ended where it began, in Hereford.  After completing his account, Gerald wrote a second, shorter book, The Description of Wales.  In its Preface he says that some readers of his earlier topographical writings took exception to the choice of subject matter.  'They see me as a painter who, rich in precious colours, the master of his art, a second Zeuxis, strives with great skill and industry to portray a humble cottage or some other subject by its very nature base and ignoble, when they were expecting me to paint a temple or fine palace.'  But Gerald, on the contrary, was proud of having adorned the rugged country of Wales with 'all the flowers of my rhetoric'.