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Walking with my son at Pistyll Rhaeadr

In previous posts about country parks and also through discussing Dartmoor, I have addressed the valorisation of the British landscape for mortuary commemoration. Beyond the cemetery, there have grown a wide range of new mortuary locales. Some are called ‘cemeteries’ or ‘burial grounds’ but privately owned – including pet cemeteries and woodland cemeteries – rather than local authority run. Others are more diffused locales, zones and spaces – attracting the deposition and dispersal of cremated human remains and memorials. Some are sanctioned and managed, others are informal and sporadic. Some are popular and receive many memorials, others are discrete and personal to individuals. Indeed, I have published academic papers on some of these, thinking about their material cultures and texts, specifically the role of animal sanctuaries, arboretums and heritage sites as places of memory and mourning in the contemporary past.

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Pistyll Rhaeadr – looking downstream from the footbridge to the farm and car park

Some of these are roadside memorials to those killed in the landscape in traffic accidents (whether pedestrians, cyclists or as drivers/passengers in a motorised vehicle). Yet many more are those that might die at home or elsewhere, but their wishes, or those of mourners, lead to their ashes to be interred, and memorials placed, at places of outstanding natural beauty and/or great antiquity. These may be places repeatedly visited during the individual’s lifetime, or a special place the deceased yearned to visit.

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Woodlands at Pistyll Rhaeadr

From an archaeological standpoint, this phenomenon is of considerable interest, since it deals  with memory work through transformative acts and ephemeral depositions, but also it often involves heritage locations and landscapes.

Hence, our late twentieth and early twenty-first century British landscapes are being populated by the bodies of, and memorials to, the dead, usually through plaques of various kinds and the deposition of cremated human remains. Some ‘cremains’ end up under cricket pitches, some in the grounds of hotels, some in domestic back gardens. Others are in striking landscape locations with panoramas or adjacent to specific beauty-spots. A common theme in these spaces and locales of mortuary commemoration is ‘privacy within a public space’; they are accessible, visible, often overlap with places people walk and visit, and yet various strategies are enacted to carve out some special sense of privacy and individualism within these public places, whether they are ancient monuments or natural topographies.

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The falls – Pistyll Rhaeadr

Another point is that while some of the locations and some of the acts of ash-deposition and ash-scattering might be motivated by specific spiritualist concerns, whether Christian, Hindu, neo-Pagan or otherwise, others by an aetheistic or agnostistic affinities to the natural world, given the widespread secular popularity of the green movement and wider concerns with the natural environment.

Pistyll Rhaeadr

Recently, I encountered a view distinctive version of this broader trend that is worthy of specific comment. At Pistyll Rhaeadr, in Montgomeryhire, Wales, is the longest single drop (80m) for any British waterfall. It is a very special location. The falls and surrounding territory is privately owned but walks up to the falls are made publicly accessible. There is a £3 parking charge (the website says £2, so come prepared). There are places further away where you can park for free. It is well worth paying if you have small kids or elderly visitors. Even for a short visit, it is worth exploring the striking phenomenon of the falls and the moss-covered rocks and the steep wooded hillsides all around.

IMG_8438This was my first visit. There are gross, run-down toilets and everything is a little shabby. There was also a heritage signboard which was a site of commemoration in itself, this was the 1,000th SSSI dedicated in Wales! Moreover, there were informal commemorative acts inscribed on it, visitors from near and far have added their graffiti mementos. Still, there was a gift shop, and a friendly lady who said hello and took my parking money.

I didn’t go in the shop (my son would likely have broken something) Still, we briefly walked across the footbridge over the stream at the base of the falls, climbed up some of the rocks up the side of the falls, and walked a short way into the woodland on the other side of the footbridge.

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IMG_8334Life and Death at the Falls

It is evident from the language of the website and the wooden sculpture, not to mention the new stone circle on their grounds, that the owners have not only an aesthetic, but a spiritual affinity to this place. The website makes clear that this is part of their worldview and part of their business as custodians as well as running a B&B and camping at this striking natural feature.

The sculpture is interesting and I won’t attempt a precise interpretation. Still, I will note the prominence of a ubiquitous bit of New Age archaeology; there is a dolmen at the top of the bearded gorping guardian of the falls.

Interestingly, the dolmen has twisty pillars, perhaps intending to imply ancient oak timbers, but to me reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon crypt at Repton. A symbol of Wales? Presumably a sculpture invoking the pagan spirit of the place? Perhaps the dolmen is a symbol of death and regeneration? If you aren’t into this kind of stuff, you don’t have to visit this sculpture or adhere to its opaque message, you can simply go and look at the wonderful water and trees. Still, I would suggest that the site and sculpture together frame the locale as a special, magical and spiritual environment for contemplation and, possibly, commune with other worlds. Please get in touch if I have missed something here, this is simply an impression.

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The footpath near Pistyll Rhaeadr – memorial trees to either side

Mortuary Commemoration at the Falls

However, my post is not to comment about the website and the affinity promoted to the genius locus of the waterfall, but to comment on another dimension of their farm’s ‘business model’. For close to the falls, on either side of the footpath on steep slopes below the treeline, I found myself amid a small publicly accessibly woodland cemetery. The trees were all short and of varied species, and at least two had memorial plaques. One has a long biographical text speaking of her rich vibrant life and affinities, a young woman installed in this landscape through her photograph and through text.

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Memorial tree, Pistyll Rhaeadr

In many ways it shares the same broad sense of roadside memorials – it was situated where visits of all faiths, genders, ages and ethnicities visiting the special place can pass by. And yet it is simultaneously very different, a ‘home’ for the dead, like a cemetery but without boundaries and hence merging into the natural environment. Far from the madding crowd, within earshot of the din of the falls, with views over farm and hills, this is a cul-de-sac for the dead, a place to ‘rest’ whilst still being on a publicly accessible route.

I’m not suggesting those memorialised have a singular vision or perception of the place, but I am suggesting that this place was special to them in life, and through choices made between the dying and the mourners/survivors, and negotiation with the landowners, this has become a place for the dead by the falls.

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