On Gop Hill: its Cairn, Cave, and the Bride of the Wind

June 6, 2015

Despite being small and skinny, her lap and her shoulder were always comforting to lean on. She magnetised them with her tales of the miniature people she called the sidhes.

‘Why can’t I see them, Nanny?’

‘Because they live underground.’

‘Are they dwarves?’

‘They’re spirits which take on the form of bodies to emerge above ground’

Elena Poniatowska, Leonora: A Novel (2015: 4).


On May 27th, on the eve of a visit to the Leonora Carrington exhibition at the Liverpool Tate, I made an ascent of Gop Hill with the friend with whom we were staying. He lives on the lower slopes of this hill, which is crowned by the second largest prehistoric mound in Britain; second, that is, to Silbury Hill, but much less well-known. The Gop Cairn is thought to be Neolithic, its truncated top attesting to the fact that it was excavated in the nineteenth century, though no trace of any burials were found by its excavator, Boyd Dawkins. On the southern slopes below the mound is the Gop Cave, a rock shelter within which the remains of at least fourteen individuals were found by Boyd Dawkins buried in a chamber built at the back of the cave, the chamber itself being ‘reminiscent of a tomb’ (Burrow 2003: 88).


The presence of the Cairn on the limestone ridge above the cave lends the whole hill the appearance of a chambered tomb, as this view of the hill from the south suggests: the cave is in the rocky escarpment which runs horizontally in the picture, seemingly immediately below the mound when seen from this angle.


A low cleft marks the entrance of the cave which means you have to duck as you enter before it opens out as you move deeper into the chamber.


In the distance the summit of Moel Famau, the highest of the Clwydian Hills, was obscured by a grey raincloud, while a tall radio mast on the next in that chain of hills started to twinkle with red lights… on my hearz’ waves.


There was a light sprinkling of rain.


As we descended the hill from the cave mouth we noticed that our presence had attracted the attention of a young pony, of white and mottled grey appearance, with a flowing blonde mane. Friskily it bucked and reared before it shot off out of vision amidst the gorse.


This apparition prompted thoughts about Leonora Carrington’s identification with the horse: ‘”I am a horse, I am a mare,” Leonora tells anyone who will listen’ (Poniatowska 2015: 12). In his introduction to her first published story, The House of Fear (1937), Max Ernst calls her the ‘Bride of the Wind’, after his series of paintings of the late 1920s depicting a leaping horse (Choucha 1991: 113). In the story a horse acts as a psychic guide who conducts the heroine through a mysterious world presided over by the figure of Fear (ibid.). Her self portrait, The Inn of the Dawn Horse (c1937), is rich in autobiographical equine associations: the rocking horse is perhaps an allusion to a beloved rocking horse destroyed by her father, Harold Carrington, in an attempt to control her, and the white horse running free – its mane flowing as wildly as her hair – may refer to the escape from the confines of her family.


As we walked further along the hill we saw the beautiful grey-white pony was among a group grazing in the distance. I thought of Carrington’s painting, The Horses of Lord Candlestick (1938), Lord Candlestick being Leonora’s satirisation of her wealthy industrialist father.  Indeed, it was the most beautiful pony – the most inquisitive, it seemed – who initiated the break towards us as we approached.


I was a bit apprehensive that we’d get trampled (recalling a horror story of an old lady trampled to death by cows), but my friend raised his arms with palms outstretched, and their pace slowed to an amble as they surveyed us. We walked on.


A couple of startled jackdaws flew from a derelict dovecote, empty, save for a couple of jackdaw nests. As we followed a broad way into woodland, my friend told how, years before, in these same woods, he’d disturbed a group of suspicious-looking men with dogs. Armed with spades, the men were digging into an earth bank. They claimed they were after rabbits; my friend believed they were after badgers. I thought of the recurrence of the badger in Carrington’s art, as a guide to the underworld, exemplified in a series of three etchings I was delighted to see the next day, with the titles: Badger Causes Table to Fly, Medium falls in Trance, followed by Medium Sinks into Trance and Badger Shadow Appears, and, finally, Badger takes Medium-Shadow in a Boat to a Cave Down to Underworld (shown below).


All in all, the ascent and circumambulation of The Gop, our various animal encounters, and our view of a raincloud-shrouded Moel Famau (‘The Hill of The Mothers’) struck me as an appropriate prelude to our journey to Liverpool the next day to see the Carrington exhibition…

Dawn Horse

In the two hours before publishing this post (which I’ve been preparing for a week now), I chose to make two edits. I’ve now realised that in these choices I’ve situated this post in a slightly uncanny network of connections between different lives and across time, crystallised in a passage I read in Poniatowski’s novelised biography of Leonora Carrington, soon after I made the edits (I bought the book in Liverpool last week and I’m currently reading it).

First, in the title of the post, I substituted ‘Bride of the Wind’ for ‘The Horses of Lord Candlestick’. Secondly, I decided to name the date – 27th May – on which I went up The Gop. It is an important anniversary for Jo and me for our premature, stillborn son, Joshua, would have been twenty-four that day. Pausing from editing the document, I picked up Poniatowska’s book, to read another chapter. Within five minutes I read that, with Max Ernst’s estranged wife on her way down, Ernst flees with his lover, Leonora, to the Carcassonne, to hide out at Joë Bousquet’s house:

On the 27th May 1918 at Vailly, near the end of the First World War, twenty-one-year-old Joë Bousquet took a bullet in his back. He now lives with all the windows in his house shuttered. The bullet in his spinal cord restricts him to his bed and to opium for the rest of his life…

He is preparing little balls of opium. Max and Leonora smoke with him as their guide.

(Poniatowska 2015: 92).

It was jaw-dropping for me to read this. Only yesterday, someone especially close and dear to me, who has been severely debilitated by back pain for some months, after an active life, had an epidural injection in the spine, in the hope that there will be some relief from the pain. I was also reminded of a dream I had in hospital twenty four years ago – as Joshua fought a losing battle for his life – of a First World War battle in which a soldier called John Hughes (almost a dream anagram for Joshua’s name) dies. As John Hughes dies I see the imprint of a face in darkness (like when you look at a bright light, then shut your eyes), a babyish looking face, with closed eyes, which a silent dream voice identifies as John Sununu, another near-anagram of Joshua, but in real life George Bush’s White House Chief of Staff from 1989 to 1991.

I read on:

Leonora discovers that Max, in calling her his ‘lover of the wind’, uses a title he took from Joë Bousquet…

‘Lover of the wind’ describes a plant without roots, pursued by the wind, which everyone tramples and breaks… Jules Michelet confirms that this plant, set in motion by a draught of air, enjoys a particular privilege: it flourishes even in the most violent of whirlwinds.

(Poniatowska 2015: 93).

It is left to Bousquet to reassure the restless Leonora:

‘You are out of danger here; and away from time. There are no clocks here. I have also decided to remain in ignorance of the date and the day of the week. Calm down and close your eyes.’

(Poniatowska 2015: 93).

La Mariee du Vent by Max Ernst. The hill in the background could almost be The Gop Cairn or Silbury (found on this site).

La Mariée du Vent, by Max Ernst. The hill in the background could almost be The Gop Cairn

Thanks to John Bryn for his hospitality.

Thanks to Fin for his technical assistance in editing and enlarging the picture of the pony. .


Stephen Burrow 2003 Catalogue of the Mesolithic and Neolithic Collections in the National Museums and Galleries of Wales. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales.

Nadia Choucha 1991 Surrealism and the Occult. Oxford: Mandrake.

Elena Poniatowska 2015 Leonora: A Novel. London: Serpent’s Tail

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