Celebrating Welsh Dark Skies Week

The 19th to the 27th February 2022 is the inaugural Welsh Dark Skies Week, a week-long series of events designed to raise awareness of light pollution and how it impacts wildlife, our health and our view of the stars. Wales has one of the largest percentages of protected dark skies in the world. The events this week also recognise the effort undertaken to preserve these protected landscapes for future generations.

In his book Dark Land, Dark Skies, astronomer Martin Griffiths marries the constellations as we know them with ancient Welsh stories from the Mabinogion to create a new perspective on the the night skies. Find out more in this extract.

This cover shows a photo of a black sky filled with stars. The text reads: Dark Land, Dark Skies, Martin Griffiths

In Dark Land, Dark Skies astronomer Martin Griffiths subverts conventional astronomical thought by eschewing the classical naming of constellations. He researches the past use of Welsh heroes from the Mabinogion in the naming of constellations, combining astronomy with a new perspective on Welsh mythology. The result is an informative and provocative guide to star-gazing which will delight amateur and professional astronomers alike. 

Dark Land, Dark Skies

One cannot escape the majesty of the heavens, the overwhelming perception of being a very small part of such a monumental edifice as the starry sky above us. Yet at the same time, one cannot help but feel at one with it. Such is the magnitude and wonder of our universal home that it comes as no surprise that the heavens have been studied from the time that man first walked the Earth. Every ancient civilization looked to the stars, grouped them into constellations and imbued them with a narrative hoping that the wisdom seen in the night sky would have a marked effect upon the course of life they could lead.

The ancient peoples of Britain, and especially the Cymru or the tribes that eventually would live in the land of Wales, also had their own cultural affinity for the sky. Many of the tales they told were shared in oral traditions that have been lost over the centuries. Others were recorded in post-Roman Britain by bards who kept the traditions alive.

In the immortal words of Monty Python: “what have the Romans ever done for us”? Well, they left us an invaluable system of writing and Roman script, so ancient tales began to be recorded by those who could read and write after the Roman system of education. This script was used to create the first poems and stories about Wales that drew upon some earlier oral traditions and tales. The oldest collected tales are from sources in thirteenth century Wales and probably date back to the fifth and sixth centuries, the time of the poets Taliesin and Aneirin. Both feature the lives of the princes of an extended kingdom of Wales: Aneirin was born in Edinburgh and wrote his classic tale of battle and loss Y Gododdin after the Anglo-Saxon invasion of eastern England. He is the first to mention some of the deeds of King Arthur. Conversely, Taliesin probably moved from court to court as his works in the Book of Taliesin praise king Urien of Hen Ogledd (now northern England and southern Scotland) and Brochfael Ysgithrog of Powys amongst others. This shows that Welsh as a language was highly influential in Britain at the time, and was probably the lingua franca of most of the country. So, tales of the great deeds and how they fitted into the sky would be commonplace in Celtic, early English and Pictish culture due to this literary influence.

The majority of old Welsh tales and poetry are known from a few volumes, Hanes Taliesin, the Black Book of Carmarthen, the Red Book of Hergestand the White Book of Rhydderch. Collectively some of these tales, poems and insights became the Mabinogion, the folk tales of Wales which were translated into English and published by Lady Charlotte Guest, albeit in a rather bowdlerized Victorian fashion, as a way to bring these tales to the masses that flooded into Wales during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to work the iron and coal that put the country at the forefront of the industrial revolution. It also raised the language and culture of Wales to a status probably not enjoyed previously and gave Welsh literature, folklore and storytelling a similar status to classical Greek and Roman myths and poetry.

Today the Mabinogion and its related texts are a great resource of academic scholarship and argument. But that is not what I intend to explore here. Instead I will take some of these ancient tales and marry them to the constellations that they pre-figure in the sky or at least are associated with in legends and tales across the Celtic systems of Wales, Ireland and Scotland, including that of some English folk tales that have an origin in Celtic myths. I will do this to show that there is a rich culture of sky lore that ties events, stories and meanings together in a way that is fairly unique to Wales, and which is as important as the classical Greek myths that are usually used to illustrate the night sky.

Also of importance to this book is the fact that the night sky is threatened by increasing light pollution and that the education system that disseminates such myths, in English, Welsh or science classes, is also threatened. Many people in urban areas have never encountered the Milky Way or seen a truly dark sky. Additionally, they have probably not been introduced to the night sky or its store of treasures in a way that ties the wonders of our modern understanding to the cultural roots of the past. This book is intended to redress that balance, not only to show some of the beauty of the night sky, but to marry that beauty to the ancient Celtic landscape and tales of Wales.

The number of dark sky parks and dark sky reserves is now increasing due to the coordinated efforts of the International Dark Sky Association, the Commission for Dark Skies in the UK and other interested bodies globally. The scourge of light pollution and the carbon footprint necessary to generate the power to light up the night sky needlessly is now being recognized by smaller groups and public interest bodies such as local councils and national parks.

Wales is fortunate to have two International Dark Sky Reserves: Brecon Beacons National Park and Snowdonia National Park, areas where the dark night sky is preserved for future generations. These beautiful landscapes and their pristine skies are joined by the Elan Valley Dark Sky Park in mid-Wales and by ongoing work toward ensuring dark sky communities in Anglesey and the Pembroke Coast National Park. Wales may truly be called the first Dark Sky Nation, a fact of which we can all be proud as the heritage of both land and sky are safeguarded for future generations.

Capitalizing on this status it is possible to build and utilize a small observatory for public education and to enhance the experience of the night sky for everyone. The Brecon Beacons International Dark Sky Reserve has such an observatory and a teaching classroom at the National Park Visitor Centre, which has been used extensively for training and for public events since it opened in 2014.

Using such an observatory can be a wonderful experience, especially for urban-based astronomers who don’t have access to very dark skies. Even those who may have portable equipment and have taken advantage of the dark sky status of the National Park enabling them to enhance their viewing will find the facilities at the observatory will allow access to the wonders of the night sky that they cannot reach from light-polluted areas.

In the case of the Brecon Beacons Observatory (BBO), its 30cm f5 reflector on a driven EQ6 mount thrilled over a thousand visitors in its first year of operation. Fitted with a piggybacked 120mm refractor for DSLR imaging or just visual observing and an Atik 314L CCD camera for imaging of objects, this small observatory has added to the experience of tourists and local astronomical societies within the national park and in south Wales generally. The BBO also has the advantage of a classroom at the visitor centre to enable education throughout the year. It is a place where the public can receive astronomy presentations and enjoy the warmth and conviviality of hot drinks on tap!

George Borrow, the nineteenth century Victorian gentleman traveler wrote in his book Wild Wales of the brooding, dark landscapes he encountered as he traversed the country. Those landscapes still exist in the heights of the Snowdonia mountains, the Cambrian range, the wine red hills of the Brecon Beacons, the shaded uplands of Mynydd Preselli and in the moorland landscapes of mid Wales. The mysterious waters of Wales’ lakes, mountain tarns, rivers and seas are at the heart of many tales that tie semi-mythical figures who trod the land with the starry patterns of the sky. That is the landscape and skyscape that I wish to bring to life and share with generations to come: the spectacle, wonder, curiosity and pride aroused in me from these old tales that I first learned as a boy. I hope that I have done them justice.

As so many of these old tales have been passed down orally, many aspects of them have changed over the years. Some of the associations between land, tale and sky are just discernable, whilst others are obvious in their placement with a particular constellation. Others share common themes across many cultures, and tales were probably shared among peoples, evolving and dispersing as their cultures fractured after the Roman withdrawal from Britain and greater Europe. It is not my intention to gerrymander tales into particular groups, but to make those possible connections plain and tell not just the Welsh side of the story but to include the classical interpretations too.

I hope that the reader enjoys this journey through the Welsh mythological landscape. I also hope that knowing some of these tales and their heavenly associations will bring a new interest to the night sky and any stargazing experience they will have.

Martin Griffiths BA BSc MSc FRAS FHEA

Brecon Beacons Observatory

Visit discoveryinthedark.wales for more information about Welsh Dark Skies Week 2022.

Dark Land, Dark Skies is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Bar 44 Tapas y Copas: A tasty first look…

In this post, we’re bringing you a tasty first look at the highly anticipated Bar 44 Tapas y Copas cookbook which is publishing 8th November. 

Whether you’re meeting up with friends or enjoying a romantic night in, this delicious recipe for Tuna Tartare with Apple Ajo Blanco is sure to satisfy. Find plenty more delicious recipes just like this one in the book.

This autumn, brothers Owen and Tom Morgan, the force behind critically acclaimed, family-run restaurant group Bar 44, take the nation’s tastebuds on an unforgettable getaway. Bar 44: Tapas y Copas is the must-have tapas book of the year, packed with over one hundred beautifully photographed, out of this world Spanish recipes you can make in your very own kitchen.

“A great go-to recipe book.” – Matt Tebbutt, Saturday Kitchen

Tuna Tartare with Apple Ajo Blanco

300g fresh sashimi-grade tuna

50ml dark soy sauce

1 tbsp manzanilla sherry

Juice of 1 lime

For the ajo blanco

250g blanched almonds

100g white bread, crusts removed, then roughly chopped

3 slow-roast heads of garlic, peeled (see Note below)

200ml extra virgin olive oil

500ml pressed apple juice

2 tbsp amontillado sherry

Freeze the tuna for 48 hours to eliminate any parasites and bacteria and make it safe to eat. This is essential, so plan your meal ahead of time. Defrost the tuna in the fridge overnight.
      To make the ajo blanco, place the almonds, bread and garlic in a bowl, then add the olive oil and apple juice. Mix together and leave to soak for 1 hour.
      Transfer to a blender, add the sherry, grapes, cucumber and apples and blitz for at least 3 minutes. If you would like the purée to have a smoother consistency, press it through a fine strainer using the back of a large spoon. Season to taste, then chill until needed.
      Sharpen your knife as much as possible for clean, consistent cutting, then dice the tuna into regular 1cm cubes (no larger). Place in a bowl, add the soy sauce, sherry and lime juice, toss with a spoon and use straight away.
      To serve, pour some ajo blanco into the bottom of your serving bowls and top with the tuna. Garnish with the toasted almonds and coriander leaves, plus a drizzle of extra olive oil if you wish.

NOTETo roast garlic, preheat the oven to 200ºC/180ºC Fan/Gas mark 6. Place whole heads of garlic in a roasting tray and roast for 1 hour. Peel and use as needed.

Pre-order Bar 44 Tapas y Copas on our website: £25.00

Join us at Bar 44 Bristol this Thursday (4th November) for the in person launch. Tickets include a signed copy of the book, food and drink on the night and a donation to the Llamau and Street Smart charities. Find out more on Eventbrite www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/168241002367.

In this video Owen Morgan shares some of his favourite memories of Spain. Find more fantastic stories from their travels in the book.

Slicing Slate – An extract from ‘Miriam, Daniel and Me’

Yesterday, the Slate Landscapes of Northwest Wales were awarded World Heritage Status meaning they are now on the Unesco list of World Heritage Sites alongside landmarks the Pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India, the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China.

The Gwynedd slate mines in Snowdonia were once said to have “roofed the 19th Century world” as slate from its quarries was exported around the globe. In this extract from Miriam, Daniel and Me by Euron Griffith, John Meredith is teaching apprentices how to cut slate in the same historic location.

Euron Griffith. Miriam, Daniel and Me. "..a confidently crafted novel about time, change and enduring love..." – Ed Thomas

When Miriam fell in love with Padraig life seemed simple. But soon she discovered that love is a treacherous business. Everything changed when she met Daniel. She was taken down an unexpected path which would dictate and dominate the rest of her life.

Spanning three generations of a North Wales family in a Welsh-speaking community, Miriam, Daniel and Me is an absorbing and compelling story of family discord, political turmoil, poetry, jealousy…and football.

John Meredith could slice slate as thin as paper. At the quarry he told the fresh crop of young apprentices who crowded around him every September that all they needed to do was find the sweet spot. Because a piece of slate was almost like a living thing. He would ask the boys if they’d ever stroked a cat. Some of them looked at each other with uncertainty. The braver ones would mumble that they had. So John Meredith explained that a cat always responded to a human hand and would guide it towards the spot where it wanted to be touched. The same was true of slate.

“Look at this mountain”, he’d say, directing their confused but eager faces to the massive whale of rock that they were precariously balanced upon. “What we’re doing is ripping this beautiful material out of Mount Orwig’s belly. Newly-mined slate rumbles past us on these trains and trucks – huge slabs. Raw. Listen to the groaning and squealing of the metal wheels. That tells you how heavy it is. You’d think it was cold and unfeeling wouldn’t you? But slate is alive boys. Trust me. As alive as you or me.”

It was a well-rehearsed lecture, delivered every year and honed, by now, as perfectly as one of his slices of slate. These were the less sturdy boys. The ones who had been deemed unsuitable for face-work. They’d been sent over by Mr MacNamara to learn how to cleave slate into thin slices using only a mallet and chisel and John Meredith was the best they had. A true artist. Now he was telling them about cats and saying that slate was alive. He knew they probably thought he was a bit mad.

“Okay boys,” he’d say, sticking the rolled-up cigarette behind his ear, “see how I’m tapping away at the rock with the blade of the chisel? What I’m searching for is that sweet spot. The place where, with one sharp tap of the mallet, the slate can be split cleanly and perfectly. That sweet spot is very important boys. It’s the key that opens up the treasure. But like with a new cat, it takes a while to find it. Unlike with a cat however, with slate you only get one chance. Get it wrong and you blow it. Which is why it’s important that you get it right. Otherwise all the men in Orwig – the men down in its bowels risking life and limb every day – won’t be happy with you. The last thing they want to see is their hard work wasted.”

He tapped the wooden hilt of the chisel. The blue-grey rock surrendered into two swooning squares.

“See how they’re both the same thickness boys? Pass them round. They’ve both got to be exactly the same thickness otherwise they’re no good.”

The apprentices would all look at each other anxiously but, in time, most of them got the hang of it. Mr MacNamara always congratulated him on training up a new generation of skilled craftsmen and if he only knew how valuable he really was, Mr MacNamara thought, he could probably demand double his wages.

Miriam, Daniel and Me is available now on the Seren website: £9.99

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Extract from Fatal Solution by Leslie Scase

Fatal Solution by Leslie Scase once again sees Inspector Thomas Chard confronted with a murder in bustling Victorian Pontypridd.

On the face of it the case appears unremarkable, even if it isn’t obviously solvable, but following new leads takes Chard into unexpected places. A second murder, a sexual predator, industrial espionage and a mining disaster crowd into the investigation, baffling the Inspector and his colleagues and putting his own life at risk as the murderer attempts to avoid capture.

Once again Leslie Scase takes the reader back to a time and place where, despite the pretensions of Victorian society, life is cheap and passions strong. His research brings Pontypridd vividly to life, and historical events drive along the plot of this page-turning story of detection, as Chard navigates a way through the clues and red herrings, and a lengthening list of suspects, towards the poisoner.

Atmospheric, authentic, Chard and the reader are left guessing until the final page.

Our featured extract begins on page 24 of the novel, with Inspector Chard and his colleague interviewing local residents in the wake of a fire…

‘This is Mrs Griffiths who discovered the fire,’ said Scudamore by means of introduction.

‘Very pleased to meet you Mrs Griffiths, I am Inspector Chard. I hope you might be able to help me with my enquiries.’

‘Only too pleased to help. There’s not much that I don’t know,’ stated the woman confidently. ‘Not that I’m a gossip mind,’ she added.

‘Thank you. Now when did you notice the fire?’

‘Well, I had noticed old Mr. Jones go up the road, hadn’t I? Poor old soul, it’s the dust on his lungs, he hasn’t been well for ages. It takes for ever for him to get to the end of the street.’

‘What time would that be?’

‘Sometime after five o’clock then wasn’t it?’

‘Can you be more precise? I mean you must have been out on the street yourself so what time did you set off ?’

‘My old man has a bad cough so I was off to see Mrs Evans, wasn’t I?’

Chard was becoming irritable. ‘Very well Mrs Griffiths, why were you going to see Mrs Evans and how does that help us establish the time?’

The woman looked at Chard as though he was simple minded. ‘I was going to Mrs Evans to get something for my old man’s cough like I said. We don’t have enough money for doctors around here do we? We all have little gardens and grow our own natural remedies. I was short of a few bits and bobs so I was going to get some dried herbs from Mrs Evans. That’s how I know what time it was.’

‘What was the time?’

‘It was definitely sometime after five because I saw Mr Jones. I told you that didn’t I?’

Chard grimaced and decided a different tack.

‘Very well, did you notice anyone else about at the time?’

‘The light was very poor, but yes. There was Mrs Davies out with her little boy, horrible little thing as he is. Always pulling jibs.’

Chard glanced at Constable Scudamore who assisted by saying, ‘pulling faces, sir.’

‘Then there was Mr Phillips from the grocer’s shop, going about his business. He had his window smashed the other day, didn’t he? Now then, we also had Mrs Evans.’

‘The one that you were going to see?’ asked Chard.

‘No, different Mrs Evans. We have four in our street. There was someone I didn’t know, a scruffy looking man in a long coat. There were two men talking together, but they were too far away to see properly. Then young Tommy Jones, he is nearly twelve so will be down the pit soon.’

‘Is that all?’

‘Apart from Mrs Pearce’s children, she lets them run riot you know, not that I’m one to talk.’

Chard turned to Constable Scudamore. ‘Tomorrow morning trace everyone this lady has mentioned and see if they know anything.’

‘Can I go now?’ asked Mrs Griffiths.

‘Just one or two more questions. Did people get on with Mr Hughes, I mean was he popular?’

‘I am not one to cleck on others,’ said Mrs Griffiths hesitantly.

‘She means tell tales,’ added Scudamore helpfully, for even after a year Chard was still unfamiliar with the local idioms.

‘To be truthful, for I cannot tell a lie, Mr Hughes was not a particularly pleasant man. The only person who got on with him was his wife, and he was besotted with her.’ continued Mrs Griffiths. ‘No one else had much of a good word to say about him and he had been very mean spirited of late.’

‘So Mr Dixon told me,’ said Chard.

‘There’s another grumpy bugger. Those two didn’t get on at all. Why are you asking though?’ asked the woman with keen interest. ‘Do you think the fire started deliberately? You can tell me. I won’t tell a soul.’

‘We are keeping an open mind Mrs Griffiths so I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions. Thank you for your help.’

Turning away the inspector led Constable Scudamore out of earshot. ‘If this is murder then it doesn’t make sense. By the sounds of it he was unpopular but why not just slit his throat one evening? Why do it in daylight and then burn down the workshop?’

‘No idea sir,’ answered the constable, rubbing his chin.

‘There is evil here Constable, I can feel it in the air, but I will uncover it, you mark my words.’

Fatal Solution is available as a paperback or ebook on the Seren website

Buy the first Inspector Chard mystery, Fortuna’s Deadly Shadow, as an ebook: £7.99

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Bring a glass of wine or your favourite tipple and join us on Tuesday 25th May at 7:30pm for the online launch. Leslie will be in conversation with Matt Johnson and we’ll host an audience Q&A. Register for free via Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/154383153167.

Friday Poem – ‘The Dance of Ararat’ by Eoghan Walls

Our first Friday Poem of 2021 is ‘The Dance of Ararat’ by Eoghan Walls from his collection Pigeon Songs which was shortlisted for the Pigott Poetry Prize 2020.

Pigeon Songs Eoghan Walls

Pigeon Songs follows on from Walls’ much-praised debut, The Salt Harvest. From the first poem, we have a sense of the poet’s themes and preoccupations: we have a richly metaphorical and densely allusive style, a pull towards formal metre and structures. There is also the occasional vigorous vulgarity, adding a touch of blue humour to the canvas, breaking up the formal rigour. Family is a potent presence in poems inspired by parents, grandparents, partners, children. They often emit a sort of energy, a fierce gravitational pull of emotion around the burning heart of a poem ultimately about love, or the sorrow of losing a loved-one.

Pigeon Songs is available on the Seren website: £9.99.

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See Eoghan read from Pigeon Songs and The Salt Harvest in this event from the Seren Stay-at-Home Series.

Extract from ‘The Owl House’ by Daniel Butler

If you’re still looking for a last minute gift, you can’t go wrong with Daniel Butler’s new book The Owl House. This pastoral exploration of mid-Wales is beautifully observed, full of evocative observations that can only have been lived to have been accrued. Here is a wintry extract from the chapter ‘Weather’.

Daniel Butler has lived in the Cambrian Mountains near Rhayader for twenty-five years, absorbing the world around him and charting its changes slow and rapid. His passion for the natural world was compounded when two wild birds, barn owls, nested at his farm. Through charting his relationship with the birds, he embarks on a pastoral exploration of his locale, rich as it is in wildlife of all kinds. His new book The Owl House is a rich and vivid portrait of one of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of Britain, broad in its horizons yet full of fascinating detail. The perfect gift for any lover of the natural world and mid-Wales.

Winter bird activity is not just about survival. I used to think the breeding season was a spring phenomenon, but for many creatures the concept seems to lurk as a constant background urge.

Even in the depths of winter there are signs of what’s to come. Mistle thrushes start to gang up towards the end of August in family groups which later join together to form small flocks. They give off their instantly recognisable football rattle calls as they bounce through the air above the fields, but by the end of the year these groups have disbanded. Instead of looking for the security of a flock to evade predators, the males are beginning to get a head start on next year’s breeding season. They do this by searching for a berry-laden food source. Indeed, the bird’s name comes from its fondness for mistletoe, that strange shrub, a living green sphere that hangs in bunches from the apparently lifeless limbs of oaks and apple trees. A glance at its fleshy white berries and strange green leaves and it isn’t difficult to see why the druids apparently venerated it as a sign of life in the depths of winter. The oak or crab apple host would be no more than a black skeleton, yet its passenger would appear the embodiment of life. Mistletoe is rare in Radnorshire, although it is common enough a few miles away in the acres of Herefordshire cider orchards.

My mistle thrushes are drawn mainly by the lure of another tree beloved by pagans and one which is, if anything, even more associated with Christmas. There is a particularly splendid and always well-endowed holly halfway down the lane. The berries grow slowly all autumn, green and hard and invisible among the glossy spiked leaves until they burst into view by turning red seemingly overnight.

By the time I go to collect a few decorative sprigs in early December, there will already be a resident mistle thrush. His favourite perch is near the crown to gain a good vantage point. He sits here like a miser crouched over his hoard, jealously watching for thieves or rivals which may try to steal his crown. At my approach he flies off giving his characteristic rattling calls of alarm towards the row of neighbouring pines. He perches there and with binoculars I can just make him out staring warily at me, filled with terrors that his jewelled kingdom might be raided in his absence.

He is not always in the holly, however, sometimes he is lurking among the ‘sallies’ (goat willows) that straggle along the banks of the nearby stream. This probably indicates the proximity of a sparrowhawk or goshawk, and he’s waiting for the danger to pass. Normally he’s a pugnacious fellow, fiercely defending his scarlet treasure from a host of increasingly hungry thieves. His greatest ire is reserved for sexual rivals, but he will defend his prize from smaller redwings and fieldfares, doves and even wood pigeons. He does this by intimidation rather than actual violence, flying at them only to veer off at the last second. At stake is not just a precious food supply at the leanest time of year, but the implications this has for the breeding season ahead. The fatter and fitter he is at winter’s end, the better his chances of attracting the best mate, for any bird that can finish the lean months in good condition is clearly a good breeding prospect. So he spends the winter fighting for food and sex.

By Christmas tawny owls are also beginning to stake out breeding territories, hooting out their instantly recognisable ‘toowhit, too-woo’ calls and at about the same point the garden robins become increasingly evident. The clichéd seasonal card image of a robin on a snow-covered spade handle as a representation of the season of goodwill and peace couldn’t be further from the truth. These are testosterone-pumped pugilists, determined to fight all rivals. At first they are driven by the need to protect their food supplies and territories and will pick fights with any other robin – even potential future mates. Once, after a heavy snow fall, I was looking at the crowds of finches, tits and nuthatches hanging on the feeders outside the kitchen window when my eye was caught by flying puffs of snow on the back lawn. Two robins were scrapping in the soft powder, bouncing into view as they pecked and kicked in fury, only to sink almost out of sight whenever they paused. No sooner had the last tiny crystals fallen back, however, than the furious tussle would resume.

The Owl House is available on the Seren website £12.99 or can be found in bookshops nationwide. Find your nearest independent bookshop using the Books Council of Wales or Bookseller Association shop finders.

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Short Story of the Month – ‘All Through the Night’ by Angela Graham

Our new short story of the month is ‘All Through the Night’ by Angela Graham from her debut short story collection A City Burning.

A man looks back to the night his marriage reached its tipping-point on a cliff-top in west Wales.

A city burns in a crisis − because the status quo has collapsed and change must come. Every value, relationship and belief is shaken and the future is uncertain.

In the twenty-six stories in A City Burning, set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy, children and adults face, in the flames of personal tragedy, moments of potential transformation. On the threshold of their futures each must make a choice: how to live in this new ‘now’. 

The story ‘All Through the Night’ was first published in the Irish journal Crannóg which nominated it for the prestigious Pushcart Prize in 2019. 

This is an excerpt, read the full story for FREE on the Seren website here.

All Through the Night

I look back now with a kind of dread, yet dread is about the future, about what’s going to happen, not what has already happened. So I dread…? The memory of pain.
          I never thought of myself as a man given to gestures. Imagination I do have, but I tend to keep it to myself.
          I remember the road: the little road under the starlight that summer. It was the year Mam and Dad sold the farm. I didn’t want it. They kept the farmhouse and the little bwthyn that had been the kernel of the homestead. You and I had used it for years already for holidays with the kids. They loved its thick walls and deep window-ledges.
          At Clogwyn Uchel, on the very edge of Wales, the roads are dark (some of them are tracks, really) and the stars sort of spread themselves out overhead, display themselves, with a careless glamour; or like something much more homely, like sugar spilt across a slate, but up there, up above. A sprinkling of sugar overhead. Very confusing if you thought about it too much. And higher into the sky – it’s hard to describe! – there’s a hazy cloud of them.  Growing up at Clogwyn Uchel and I never bothered to learn much about them. Anyway, the stars do what they do whether we notice them or not. They’re not waiting for our attention.
          On a clear night like that one they shed enough light to see your way and the chalky ground of the lane helps. It’s a glimmering path up to the bwthyn, reflecting light from far, far above. Sometimes it even seems to me as though a bit of the sky has dropped to earth because the little white stones are like a rough and tumble Milky Way between the hedges.
          You walked ahead of me, Mari. Blindly, I thought. Or like someone who’d been dazzled by something. Your feet took you.
          Your mind? Numbed.
          Probably. We all have to do so much guess-work about each other! What is she feeling?  What will she do next? What does she want?
          “Do you love him?” I called out. But you didn’t stop, or look back, or speak. I’m sure you heard me. You went on, into the little house.
          I couldn’t. I walked around it to where the sea suddenly presents itself. A shock! Always. Always that shiver at finding yourself on the edge of a cliff. Acres of water ahead in a dark mass. The endlessness of the sea. It doesn’t stop. It goes about its business, rushing and crushing, floating boats, flexing itself. That night it was shuddering.
          The stars. Some flung themselves down the sky. Mad bastards. Most looked on in a dignified way, blinking mildly at this recklessness.  And I thought of the song. Its beautiful tune.
          Holl amrantau’r sêr ddywedant
          Ar hyd y nos.

          Ar hyd y nos. All through the night.
          Nothing like the crappy English version.  Sickly-sweet, that.  And boring. “Soft the drowsy hours are creeping… visions of delight revealing… hill and vale in slumber steeping”. And the stars don’t get a look-in! Not a mention. You pointed that out to me. When you were learning Welsh. “How come…?” you asked. You were always asking that. “Why is the verb here? Why do I have to say…?” Whatever.
          And I’d say, “It just is, Mari. I don’t know why. Ask your teacher, cariad.  Gwyn knows all that stuff.”
          Yes, he did, didn’t he?

Finish reading ‘All Through the Night’ on the Seren website here.

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Friday Poem – Extract from ‘Let Me Tell You What I Saw’ by Adnan Al-Sayegh

This week’s Friday Poem is an extract from Let Me Tell You What I Saw by Adnan Al-Sayegh.

Let Me Tell You What I Saw is the first ever publication as a dual-language (English/Arabic) text of substantial extracts from Adnan Al-Sayegh’s ground-breaking epic poem, Uruk’s Anthem, one of the longest poems ever written in Arabic literature, which gives voice to the profound despair of the Iraqi experience. This superb translation by Jenny Lewis, Ruba Abughaida and others, brings the eloquent original Arabic epic to a new readership.

Let Me Tell You What I Saw is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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Join us on Tuesday 10th November from 6pm (GMT) for the virtual launch of Let Me Tell You What I Saw. Readings from the text in Arabic and English by Adnan Al-Sayegh and Jenny Lewis will be followed by a discussion on the translation process between Jenny and Ruba Abughaida. Register for FREE via Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/122240752381.

Ed Beech’s Recipe for Orkney Fish Pie

Ed Beech is one half of Beech Building Services. He’s also a keen cook. Today we’re sharing his recipe for Orkney Fish Pie, one of his favourites. Here’s everything you need to organise prep do done.

Orkney Fish Pie

What you need.

A jug of milk.

Some shallots.

Three average cloves.

Eight hand picked Orcadian scallops.

A fillet of fresh Orcadian caught white fish, preferably tusk.

A small bag of smoked Orcadian mussels.

A lump of butter about the size of a lemon.

A lemon.

Two saucepans.

Some flour (enough to cover the palm of your hand).

Half a dozen tatties of varying sizes.

Knives and spoons.

A bowl of grated Westray Wife cheese.

An oven.

Sea salt and coarsely ground pepper.

Wine.

Nutmeg.

Jazz.

An ovenproof dish.

A cat.

What you need to do.

Put the cat out. Pour the milk into a pan, add the chopped shallots, the cloves and some salt and pepper. Cook the fish in this mixture for a couple of minutes and then let it cool and infuse for half an hour. Drink some wine.

Boil the tatties, mash them with butter, fresh milk and a fistful of the cheese.

Remove the fish from the milk mixture and set aside. Melt the butter in a pan, slowly add the flour and then stir the strained infused milk into the mix until you’ve got a good looking sauce. Let the cat back in.

Pour some of the sauce into an ovenproof dish and add some chunks of fish, four scallops and some mussels. Add some more sauce, the rest of the fish, scallops and mussels, and pour in the last of the sauce. Put the cat out again.

Spread the mash over the top, cover with some more cheese and bake until it’s bubbling and smells right.

Serve with the lemon, a small heap of spinach, some Dave Brubeck and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Cloudy Bay from New Zealand for preference. Let the cat in again. Remember that you forgot to grate the nutmeg over the mash before you put it in the oven. Drink some more wine. Do the washing up.

Ed Beech is one half of Beech Building Services. He’s based in Bermondsey but no job’s too small, no distance too great. So when he’s asked to do some work on a house in Orkney, he loads the van with paint, tools and sandwiches, and takes off. He gets nervous around farm animals and large ships, and he’s never been so far north, but when he’s joined by Claire, his client’s city banker sister, he discovers that in Stromness, anything is possible.

The Stromness Dinner is available on the Seren website £9.99

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We’re hosting the virtual launch of The Stromness Dinner next week on Wednesday 4 November. Peter will be in discussion with Duncan McLean followed by a live audience Q&A so come with your questions ready. Register for FREE via Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/122383543473

Guest post: Sarah Philpott introduces us to ‘The Seasonal Vegan’

Today, we publish Sarah Philpott’s much-anticipated new book The Seasonal Vegan, and who better to introduce it than the author herself.

The Seasonal Vegan by Sarah Philpott is a kitchen diary of seasonal recipes with a delicious mixture of fine food writing and beautiful photography. This guide to eating with the seasons takes a realistic approach to shopping cheaply and sustainably and proves that the vegan lifestyle is anything but expensive. As well as tasting good, these dishes look beautiful thanks to the wonderful photography of Manon Houston.

 

Season’s Eatings

I can’t think of a more apt time to write about seasonal eating. With food security at risk more than ever thanks to the Covid outbreak and Brexit (it’s still happening, in case you’d forgotten), it might be time to think about what we’re eating and where it comes from.

I started writing The Seasonal Vegan over a year ago when things were very different. I always try to eat seasonally, mainly because it tastes better, and I wanted to create recipes inspired by the different seasons.

For a while now, campaigners, food writers and chefs have advocated seasonal eating because it can have a positive impact on the environment and local communities. Now, in these unprecedented times, access to imported foods might become more difficult, and so seasonal eating is more important than ever.

You can still buy pretty much anything you want at the supermarket all year round – and fruit and vegetables tend to be ignored by panic buyers – but there are some very good reasons to eat with the seasons.

Buying seasonal produce is generally better for the environment because it requires lower levels of heating, lighting, pesticides and fertilisers than at other times of the year. Eating fruit and vegetables that have been grown in the UK reduces the energy needed to transport them from other countries – 26 per cent of all carbon emissions come from food production – so eating British asparagus in May uses less food mileage than buying what’s flown in from South America – ­and, of course, it’s tastier.

Because food in season is usually in abundance and has less distance to travel, it’s also cheaper. It costs less for farmers and distribution companies to harvest and get to the supermarket or greengrocer, which means that a British tomato bought in peak harvest season in August will cost less than one bought in January. And it’s not only cheaper at the big supermarkets – if you can, shopping at your local greengrocer, or farm shop can be just as cost effective. And although farmer’s markets can be a little pricier, you’ll be supporting a local business and you really do get what you pay for in terms of freshness, taste and quality.

Now, I’m no gardener (the flat we live in doesn’t have a garden) and I’ve never grown my own vegetables – not yet, anyway – but I love nature and I notice the change in the air as the months go by. Wouldn’t it be dull if we ate the same all year round? Nothing beats a warm stew with squash or beetroot when it’s cold outside, and now, at the peak of summer, we can enjoy succulent strawberries, tomatoes, broad beans and peas.

Eating seasonally is sometimes seen as inaccessible or elitist, but it really doesn’t have to be – and it’s possible to cook and eat fruit and vegetables in a way that’s  easy, inexpensive and tasty. Studies show that only 31 per cent of adults in the UK eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day – with just 18 per cent of children doing the same – and that’s something we need to address.

The Seasonal Vegan isn’t about being perfect, puritanical or prescriptive about eating what’s in season, but it does celebrate a rainbow of fruits and vegetables and all their health benefits – and it might inspire you to eat and cook a bit differently.

 

Recipe: Cucumber Gazpacho

Photograph by Manon Houston

 

15 minutes, plus 2 hours in the fridge

Serves 4-6

 

Ingredients

2-3 cucumbers, cut into chunks

1 onion, peeled and diced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 slice of white bread, roughly torn

350ml hot vegetable stock

4 tsp rice vinegar

1-2 tsp tabasco sauce

1 tbsp sugar

Fresh basil

Flaked almonds

 

Method

1. Blend the cucumber, onion, garlic and bread using a food processor or a hand held blender. You should end up with a fairly smooth mixture. Tip into a large bowl and pour over the hot stock and the other ingredients and stir. Leave to cool, then when at room temperature, cover and refrigerate for at least two hours

2. Serve with toasted flaked almonds and torn basil leaves.

 

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