“HAUNTED, you said?” “Yes, haunted. Don’t you remember three years ago when you told me about your place in the west with the ancient woods hanging all about it and the wild domed hills, and the ragged land?’
Thus opens The Shining Pyramid by Arthur Machen, literary son of Caerleon, journalist, author, actor and mystic whose words evoke a magical Gwent which, in its remotest corners, is still to be found.
In a writing life spanning the last quarter of the 19th century and much of the first half of the 20th Machen captured a side of Gwent which runs deeper than outside appearances.
Celtic hill forts and Twyn Barllwm especially, the forests of Wentwood and the Usk Valley were magical places for Machen even when he was caught up in the literary hurly-burly of London or at the end of his days in Buckinghamshire where he died in 1947.
“And the heart of Machen country is still there today, hardly changed since the century or more since he wove it into his work” local historian and author Richard Frame said.
A clergyman, a doctor and an MBE have come together in a rolling campaign to get the name of Arthur Machen – a figure widely admired in literary circles – better known in his native Gwent.
Richard Frame MBE was until his retirement director of Newport Action for the Single Homeless.
His friends Dr David Osmond and the Revd Mark Lawson- Jones are respectively head of the Darran practice in Risca and rector of Magor.
Together they have mapped out a route which begins at Machen’s Caerleon birthplace, threads through the lanes and narrow winding roads of Llandewi Fach, Llandegveth, Lansor and Lansor Mill leading finally to a view of the fabulous Bertholey House which in Machen’s words ‘Stood on the boundaries and green walls of my imagination and became an object of mysterious attraction to me.’
To mark the 150 years since Machen’s birth two volumes including the Great God Pan for which he is best known has been reprinted by the Library of Wales and other events are to follow.
Talks, publications, a film showing and a play hopefully to be put on in the grounds of Bertholey House are planned for the 150th anniversary of the writers’ birth.
“Just at this moment we want to raise awareness in Gwent itself of its literary treasure,” Dr Osmond says.
“Far Off Things, which is a part of his autobiography, is a superb evocation of Gwent as it was in the last quarter of the 19th century, a landscape which in many parts was changing rapidly.”
Yet in other parts, not so.
As you leave the main road at Ponthir for Llandewi Fach, Llandegveth, Bertholey and other points o n a 17-mile circuit you enter a world which in large part is still recognisable from Machen’s time. Here a stone inscription put in place by his father the Revd John Edward Jones; there across a rolling and open field Llandewi Fach church which is the burial place of Mr Jones and his wife with a view of the Rectory that was their home, a view unchanged since 1864 when the Rectory was built.
Ultimately and most striking of all the time-traveller in search of Machen’s world breasts a rise overlooking the Usk Valley and on the far ridge, poised beneath the dark forest of Wentwood and the meadow and ‘wild, domed hills’ is Bertholey itself, rebuild after a fire in 1905 to much as Machen would have known it save that the porch is now only one-storey high.
The trio has prepared a booklet about what they are calling Arthur Machen country.
“It’s a co-incidence that there are three of us engaged in increasing Machen’s profile and the fact that for the author the number three had a mystical significance,” Mr Frame said.
To which Dr Osmond adds a fact which has worked against a serious appreciation of Machen for years.
“He is often seen as a superior kind of horror writer.”