The last dragon in Wales sleeps in the Radnor Forest, a seven-mile upland area of east Wales. The creature will not wake so long as he remains ringed by the multiple churches of the dragon-slayer, St Michael (Llanfihangel). In the lee of one church, at the end of a hedged cul-de-sac, and itself ringed by 1,000-year-old yews in a circular churchyard, lives Peter J Conradi. This mild-mannered Prospero summons up the spirits of Radnorshire past: writers, poets, historians, anchorites and mystics.
Conradi is alive to the other-worldly dimension of the hauntingly beautiful Welsh Marches – the Elizabethan magician Simon Dee may have been born here – but this is no flaky New Age treatise. Conradi acknowledges the mixed benefits of the incomer invasions which somehow have never swamped the locals, whose speech patterns, weathered obliquity, and gift for slow-living he captures well.
Arguing that this area has been the central repository of the true spirit of Welshness since the 12th century, he presents writers like Gerald of Wales, a suitably mongrel Welsh/Norman border figure, the poets Herbert, Traherne, Vaughan, who sought and found "the Paradise within" in this numinous landscape, and the attractive Rev Francis Kilvert, a man of humane curiosity and kindness.
There is Bruce Chatwin, and a contemporary trio of poets – R S Thomas, Roland Matthias, Ruth Bidgood – who have celebrated an area Conradi has known for 40 years. Wales "has absorbed many English enthusiasts for its scenery and history: it can in me find room for one more".
Conradi writes thoughtfully and non-judgementally even when dealing with contentious matters of Welsh politics and cultural identity. He is glad to quote Bidgood's declaration that she did not come to this area to escape the world: "This is the world." Completed by Simon Dorrell's exquisite pen-and-ink miniatures, it is the perfect primer to this quiet stretch of Wales.
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