Just like the briar wood in “Sleeping Beauty”, for many years the Gwyltt Woods in Portmeirion grew so thickly that its paths were swallowed beneath the undergrowth and its branches were knitted together so tightly that even the sun struggled to pass through. Starved of light, the many Himalayan rhododendron bushes that grew in the woods wilted and died, leaving behind a tunnel of twisted dried branches with the appearance of bone.
The wildness of woods seems to have turned those who passed through it wild, also. In the 1800’s people came looking for gold in the wood’s sunken ponds, only to leave with delusion and clay. The last man in the county to be hung took refuge in the woods. Such was one Victorian botanist’s arborial obsession, that he deliberately allowed the woodland’s paths to become impassable in order to stop tourists visiting the remains of the 14thcentury castle deep inside. Not to mention the untold tales of madness incurred during long medieval winters inside the castle’s stone towers…
I had come to these woods because my friend Luke Bainbridge had invited Don’t Tell Stories to curate a trail for Festival Number 6, where he is the Arts Curator. Don’t Tells Stories is an ever evolving art project I began a couple of years ago to create physical and psychological spaces that re-imagine the act of reading and listening to stories; explore the discovery of stories and encourage the stories all have to tell, using narrative in all its forms – written, spoken, sonic, visual.
Visiting the woods to plan the trail, I had a very palpable feeling among the gingkos and firs that all was not what as it first seemed, as if far away from the city, the boundaries between shade and light, real and dreamt, familiar and strange – just as in all the best fairy tale woods – had become less solid and more permeable than anywhere else.
And it was this idea that you could come to the woods and somehow be transformed by it, that seemed such a powerful force for creating a space to write something, make something or simply think, dream and imagine.
Friends and artists Raisa Veikolla & Frida Alvinzi of Theatre of Dolls created an illustrated map which would explain the wood’s natural history, folklore and its myths. So there were stories in the map. But there were also stories in the trees. Dan Mayfield created sound installations which wove arborial poetry with music to create sound pieces in the trees, as if they did indeed have voices.
Woods are home to kind woodcutters and elves; talking animals and living trees, who are often there to offer guidance and cast spells. On the trail, these took the form of Joyful Joyous Tarot, a trio of mystics who spent the weekend divining stories written on palms and in the pictures of cards.
Equally joyful in spirit, troubadours We Make Hay performed songs about the woods co-written with the audience with a boundless enthusiasm that infected everyone. As the weekend wore on, they began to invite people from the audience to be their “guest” drummer or guitarist. One man asked if he could join in and promptly drew a trumpet from his bag. Later, the same trumpeter was spotted on the main stage playing with Gruff Rhys and his band.
This is what troubadour leader Hugh Nankivell said: “Whenever we met someone who had been making a song with us later in the festival, we were able to smile at them as if we shared a secret together (which I suppose we did).”
All the song lyrics that everyone had written were strung up in the trees along red ribbon (the colour of magic), so that the woods became a kind of living word installation. Elsewhere in the woods, the word installation took the form of riddles and poetry written by Sara Hurley and Lucy Lepchani. While next to their poems, hung the poetry of passers-by, which had been teased so very gently from their unconscious inner writer by Sara and Lucy, as if the words had been there all along. And so strung up on ribbons up in the trees, more secrets were shared.
This is what Sara said: “I was touched by the amount of young men, and a few older ones, who immediately said they couldn’t write – didn’t like writing – who put themselves down who ended up really enjoying the activity and walking away with improved esteem and a sense of achievement. Two young men in their early 20′s came up with some ideas, which they became brimmingly proud of. It was obvious they’d had poor school experiences. One said that this was the best fun he’d had all weekend.”
This is what Lucy said: “While some children wrote their poems, I spoke to their parents who did not want to participate because they were ‘no good’ at poems. During this time, I also spoke with two other people who came by, about ‘stream of consciousness’ poems – how these are done, how they open up the unconscious creative mind. The woman I had previously been conversing with took interest, and then decided she would like to try one. What she wrote, I read back aloud to her (she wouldn’t read aloud) and she had tears of pride in her eyes. I hung her poem alongside her children’s.”
My friend the artist & photographer Vinca Petersen brought a vast bag of wool blankets to the woods alongside crocheted patches her sister had made with her geriatric patients. Vinca spent ten years living with travellers and her art is about reclaiming under-used or over-looked public spaces and re-purposing them to create community. Her charity, Future Youth Project, like Don’t Tell Stories, is founded on the belief that every human being is creative. Throughout the festival, Vinca, who has a very special mischievous energy, had dozens of people stitching the blanket as it grew and grew into a giant picnic blanket. People came to sit down on her blanket and didn’t seem to want to leave. At one point she had twenty five family groups all merrily stitching away. Another time, Vinca was to be found holding court to a stag do.
Theatre of Dolls performed The Holy Dress, their dark and enchanting version of the creation story in the form of a puppet show for adults against the backdrop of the rhododendron bushes. Raisa & Frida, solemnly opened the skirts of their baroque Siamese twinned dresses, which was also the curtain of their puppets’ stage and there in the space between their legs, the infinite space of the void began to unfold. It was moving to hear people who said they didn’t knew much about art and who felt out of their comfort zone go on to add how much they enjoyed Theatre of Dolls’ performance.
I had written a short story inspired by Derek Jarman’s garden in Dungeness about a woman who goes to the sea to die. Propagating Dan spent two days collecting ephemera from the woods and nearby beach to create a reading installation that reflected the ideas in the story about making gardens from shells but that was also about creating a kind of shrine or sacred feeling space – cool and dark and eremitical like a hermit’s cave – where the outside world could momentarily be vanished.
It was strange and magical to read my story among the green shadows of its arches made which were held together with bracken and which Dan had decorated with dulse and bladder washed in from the sea. As I read, no one stirred. It felt so still and quiet. There was only my voice and the silence of the woods and the sound – if it is a sound – of listening. Vinca had offered to take photographs but when it came to it, she forgot. “I felt so drawn into the story and the space,” she said, “that I fell into a kind of trance. It was only when the story was over that I remembered I was supposed to have my camera out…”
There was a part of me that struggled to believe how much people seemed to enjoy participating in the trail – especially when the great British public, as a whole, does not tend to go in for audience participation. But the energy and expertise and sense of enchantment that each artist brought to the experience, in the end, turned out to be such a gentle but powerful force that people seemed unusually and unexpectedly open. But most of all, I think everyone was affected by being in the woods, as if all of us – artists & audience – had been ever so slightly touched by its wildness.