Walking in Arthur Machen's Footsteps



On Saturday I did something interesting. No lie in or lazy brunch for me. Instead I was up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and bundling myself and my packed lunch into the back of a car en route to the ancient town of Caerleon. There a number of people with rain coats, walking boots and literary leanings were gathering in a car park for the latest walk in Literature Wales' excellent and innovative Literary Tourism programme. A walk that would celebrate one of the great early fantasy fiction writers, Arthur Machen. A local man who was directly influenced by the people and places of the Usk Valley, setting scenes and drawing themes from them throughout his literary career.
Organised by Literature Wales' Literary Tourism Project Manager Dr Bronwen Price, in association with Parthian Books, the walk would take us from the centre of Caerleon over hill, bog, golf bunker and sunken burrow and through the Usk Valley. Machen country, a land that inspired much of the cult Welsh writer's decadent Gothic horror and fantasy writing. As we travelled 'by field and wood and marshy places' we were to stop at recognisable, often much unaltered views from The Hill of Dreams and The Great God Pan as Wales' Young People's Laureate, local fantasy writer (and confessed Machen fan) Catherine Fisher read his lyrical passages to us, and other experts – Richard Frame, Dave Osmond, and Mark Lawson – filled us in on facts and flights of fancy.
Beginning at the beginning
The walk started opposite Machen's birthplace, where a blue plaque commemorates his being, and is clearly visible on a cottage opposite Ye Olde Bull Inn car park. There Catherine Fisher introduced us to Machen – the author, journalist, mystic and actor who was born in Caerleon in 1863 and spent the majority of his childhood years living in the surrounding countryside, greatly influenced by his surroundings and the town's Roman past. Writing in his memoir Far Off Things, Machen says: 
I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that has fallen to me, that I was born in that noble, fallen Caerleon-on-Usk, in the heart of Gwent […] For the older I grow the more firmly I am convinced that anything which I may have accomplished in literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened in earliest childhood they had before them a vision of an enchanted land.
As we continued on the tour, we were shown St Cadoc's Church (where Machen's grandfather, Rev. Daniel James, was buried), Caerleon Roman Amphitheatre,  and the grand restored remains of Bertholey House, a setting in a number of Machen books including The Great God Pan, The Shining Pyramid and The Three Imposters:
And just visible beneath the forest was the white of a house which they told me was called Bertholly. And for some reason, this house which stood on the boundaries and green walls of my young world became an object of mysterious attraction to me. It became one of the many symbols of the world of wonder that were offered to me, it became, as it were, a great word in the secret language by which mysteries were communicated. I thought of it always with something of awe, even dread;
Driven on to a quieter space by the heckling cattle, we then continued along the Usk Valley footpath to take in the panoramic views, more readings, our packed lunches and delicious slices of cake provided by Literature Wales, before eventually returning to the town,
and so entering at last Caerleon-on-Usk, the little silent, deserted village that was once the golden Isca of the Roman Legions, that is golden for ever and immortal in the romances of King Arthur and the Graal and the Round Table. (Far Off Things, p.8)
The walk concluded almost at its starting point, outside a different pub, for there is little shortage of drinking establishments in Caerleon. So, outside the Hanbury Arms we heard the last reading before sinking weary limbs inside the warmth of a pub, and thirsty mouths into the lips of filled glasses as the weird and wonderful acts of Caerleon Arts Festival performed to the throng around us:
So Bill and I came at last into Caerleon, having succeeded by much extraordinary wandering in making five miles into ten, and at Caerleon we drank old ale at the Hanbury Arms, which is a medieval hostelry, close to the Roman tower by the river. (Far Off Things, p.150)
Gwilym Games (pictured left), Editor of Machenalia for The Friends of Arthur Machen was on hand to add his knowledge, fantastic fandom, and a Machen reading (from the opening of The Great God Pan). He said:
The Literature Wales walk was an enjoyable wander through Machen’s beloved Gwent countryside. It highlighted various important locations in Machen’s life and work and was well illuminated by appropriate Machen readings and discussion. The fine company of Machen readers, old and new, added much to the pleasing adventure and appropriately it ended in one of Machen’s favourite pubs in Caerleon. Machen’s line 'I had walked and wandered by unknown roads' sums up the day.
Whilst Lleucu Siencyn, Chief Executive of Literature Wales commented on this wonderful walk through the enchanted lands of Machen's Childhood, saying:
Literature Wales is delighted to have worked with Parthian Books on this event, which comprises one of fourteen literary tourism adventures organised this year. Arthur Machen’s worlds drew upon the magic, myth and folklore of this special part of the Usk Valley, and our guided walk traversed the very ridgeway, forest and vista in which many of his spirits and demons originated. Accessed through the eyes of local contemporary fantasy writer and Young People’s Laureate for Wales Catherine Fisher, Machen’s influence was also explored. We look forward to our second Parthian Books partnership literary tour later this year, which focuses on the writer and artist Brenda Chamberlain.
For more information on this and other literary tourism events organised by Literature Wales in 2012, visit: http://www.literaturewales.org/2012literarytourismeventsprogramme/
To see many more images of the walk, please visit our Facebook photo album of the day.
More Machen
Parthian Books are proud to include two Machen titles in The Library of Wales Series. You can buy his autobiographical novel The Hill of Dreams and his novella The Great God Pan direct from the website of our publisher, Parthian Books as well as all good books stores.
Machen has been enjoying a resurgence of popularity in recent years. One that resonates far beyond the cult horror and fantasy fans who cottoned on early, so it was no surprise to find that our Usk Valley walk was completely sold out. This renewed interest in Machen is in part thanks to the success of the 2006 del Torro film Pan's Labyrinth, based on Machen's novella The Great God Pan, and also due to high profile advocates of his writings from people like the comedian Stewart Lee to Mick Jagger, who cites Machen as an influence. Marking the 150 year anniversary of his birth, 2013 will hopefully win Machen even more fans with many events planned including outings at Hay Festival and Dinefwr Festival. Machen also has a much deserved place as featured author at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton: "We plan a whole stream of programming about Machen and his contemporaries, produced in close collaboration with The Friends of Arthur Machen." 
If you would like to find out more about Arthur Machen, visit the website of The Friends of Arthur Machen for more information and the opportunity to join the Caermaen email list for the latest Machen news. They can also be found on Facebook.
Written by Susie Wild, Associate Editor at Parthian Books and part time literary tourist.
This article was written with additional information from the wonderful accompanying tour guide booklet 'Inspired by Gwent', produced by local historians Richard Frame, Mark Lawson-Jones and David Osmond. Please contact inspiredbygwent 'at' gmail.com for more information.

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