The Silver Witch, by Paula Brackston

The Silver Witch is the story of two women, born centuries apart, and the lake that binds them together.

When Tilda, and her husband (Mat) bought the idyllic little cottage, their plan was to begin their lives together, making pottery and drawing inspiration from the rugged beauty of the Welsh countryside. However, when Mat dies in a horrific car accident on the way home from their honeymoon everything changes in the blink of an eye. Now, one year later, after having spent a year recovering living with her parents in Somerset, Tilda has boldly decided to carry on with the original plan to start a new life there, alone…

Given that this book obviously contains magic, and witches, there is no surprise that shortly after moving in, strange things start to happen. It begins with the power going out, which in and of itself is not so odd in a remote and rural area. However, as powers, visions, and abilities that she never knew she had before begin to surface it Tilda can no longer deny the magic, nor the growing danger that are surrounding her.

Interspersed with Tilda’s story are tales from Seren’s life, as a Celtic Shaman, in about the 9th century CE. Seren, is much stronger willed, and far more aware of her magical abilities, but no less vulnerable, as both women, either through choice or by circumstances, live apart, but are ultimately and uniquely tied to the lake.

As with other books I have read by Paula Brackston (The Winter Witch, and the Witch’s Daughter, both of which were awesome), this book takes place in the Powys region, or Mid Wales, an area known for its ruggedly beautiful, and veritably mystical landscape.

In truth, I have often thought that the Welsh Tourism board ought to send Brackston endorsement checks, as each of her books so beautifully features and captures the landscape that you can’t help but long to visit yourself.

While I have not been to the specific places mentioned in the Silver Witch, but plan to as soon as finances and familial obligations will allow it, I have visited family in Snowdonia (about 3 hours north) and grew up on my grandparent’s stories of the Rhondda Valley (about 1.5 hours south). So I am at least vaguely familiar with the Welsh landscape, culture, and mythology, and feel comfortable saying, without reservation, that Brackston nails the appearance of the country time after time in this book. But even more than that, she captures the feeling of Wales; realizing that Wales is much more than simply a place. By treating the natural landscape of the area almost like one of the characters itself, she shows how this rugged and often harsh landscape is not merely a backdrop for her story, but rather, that it often guides, shapes, or even dictates the story, just as it has the Welsh culture for countless generations. In my opinion, I think that this is one of Brackston’s greatest strengths as a storyteller.

Brackston also has an adept ability to maintain a healthy balance in her stories, allowing them to simultaneously fall into and fulfill multiple genres and categories without feeling forced or trite. In this story there are elements of romance, but it is not a love story. The romance in the Silver Witch, as in life itself, is merely part of the rich tapestry woven together to form a whole. Likewise, though this is a story where magic features prominently (as in duh, it is in the title), Brackston uses magic without over using it; never falling into the classic, but fatal, fantasy mistake of trying to use magic to solve every problem the protagonists encounter. She very clearly shows that magic does not automatically equate to happiness or power, and in fact, quite often, has quite the opposite effects. The gift of magic can be unsettling, frightening, and even at times dangerous; it will set one apart, sometimes by choice, other times by necessity.

Finally, I found Brackston’s use of historic details to be as deftly balanced and refreshingly unique as her melding of magic, romance, and landscape. Reading historical novels, or even just novels with historical elements, can be an entertaining and amazing way to learn about the past. The experience feels more organic, more real than reading actual historic documents and accounts. However, finding and maintaining, the balance between historical accuracy and fictional fantasy can be difficult at best. Too often, authors either overwhelm the reader with so many details and historical facts that it quickly begins reading more like a doctoral dissertation than a piece of entertainment, or worse yet get so creative in their use of historical elements that it can be truly cringe worthy. In The Silver Witch, Brackston use of historic details is both rich and authentic without ever feeling overwhelming, forced or false. More than once I found myself turning to the Internet to look up information about articles mentioned in the story, not because the description was lacking, but because I wanted to know more about them.

Brackston’s even hand and natural storytelling talent make for an enjoyable read, perfect for a cold winter night spent by the fire.

*** POSSIBLE SPOILERS ***
Proceed with caution if you have not read the book…

Locations Mentioned in the Story

Although this book is a work of fiction, many of the places (and even some of the people) mentioned in the story are real. Below you will find a list of the locations mentioned within the narrative of The Silver Witch. Whenever possible, I have provided links to official websites. Hopefully, one day, I will be able to add my own personal photographs, but for the time being this will have to remain an armchair holiday.

Llangors Lake

In The Silver Witch, both Tilda and Seren reside in the area around this ancient body of water, and as such, it features prominently in the story. But Llangors Lake, or Llyn Syfathan as it would have been known in Seren’s time, is not merely a body of water who’s beauty the characters encounter as they travel the course prescribed in Brackston’s tale. Rather, I think it fair to say that Llangors Lake is actually the third main character, and the only one to remain throughout the entire timeline of the tale. Carved by retreating glaciers, Llangors Lake, is the largest natural lake in Wales and boasts the only Crannog (a man-made island) in all of Wales.

According the Author’s note at the end of the book, Llangors Lake is just over the hill from her home and has fascinated her since she was a child.

“And there nestling in the lush lowland meadows, with the majestic Beacons rising up behind it, sits the lake, shaped like an enormous tadpole, fringed by wetlands on one end, and small woodlands at the other.” (Page 310)

Information about the lake itself:

  • The Brecon Beacons National Parks web site is a great place for photographs and general information. http://www.breconbeacons.org/llangorse-lake
  • Paula Brackston has a handful of photographs on her website of the lake as well as discussion questions for reading groups. http://www.paulabrackston.com/for_reading_groups/
  • I strongly recommend doing an image search using your favorite search engine, as there are countless photographs posted to websites, and blogs, none of which I have permission to use here. But seriously, go and take a look, the lake is absolutely gorgeous.

According to local folklore, Llangors Lake is also the home to Gorsey, an afanc (a Welsh lake monster). These legends are timeless and ancient, but the first written reference to the lake creature was in a 15th century poem. Sightings continue to be reported by locals and visitors alike, however, cryptozoologists believe that the legend may have originated as a result of the enormous (and predatory) pike that reside in the lake. As recently as 1999 a man was attacked by a 5’6” pike that resulted in hospitalization. Likewise, there are reports of pike being caught in the area in excess of 60 lbs. However, I think that there is enough room in the lake to host both enormous pike as well as the ancient beast.

“And of course, there are so many lovely legends and myths attached to the place. It has its own magic, it is fair to say.” (Page 44)

You can read more about Gorsey:

On the “far side” of the lake, as Tilda refers to it, there is a “thriving example of local tourism, with its campsite and boats for hire and sailing lessons.” (Page 44)

You can find out about all of the amenities and entertainments available, as well as see dozens of pictures showcasing the lake on the Lakeside Caravan Park web site, http://www.llangorselake.co.uk/the-lake.html

The Crannog

In the story, the Llangors Lake Crannog, a man-made island believed to have been built well over 1,000 years ago, and the only one of its kind within Wales, is described in both modern and ancient times. However, as the residence of her Prince, whom is credited in the story with its construction, the Crannog occupies a much more significant role in Seren’s tale than in Tilda’s. In reality, just as within the narrative of the story, the Crannog most likely housed a royal palace, or fort, which was burnt to the ground in 916 by Saxon invaders. As a result, only archaeological evidence, buried beneath the ground, is all that remains of this structure. However, an interpretation center, located on the northwest shore of the lake offers a glimpse into life on the Crannog during this period.

“The small island sits upon the water as if held there by magic, floating, the weight of the hall and the other buildings apparently supported by some unknown glamor. In truth it is a solid thing. It was not magic that brought it into being but hard labor, sweat, and toil. It is not suspended at all, but sits stoutly on layers of rock and wood, hauled into place over many months, constructed to the design of clever, ambitious men.” (Page 18)

“The manmade island. They are quite common in Ireland, but this is the only one in Wales.” (Page 42)

You can learn more about The Visiting Center located on the Crannog on the Llangors Lake website,  http://www.llangorselake.co.uk/the-lake/crannog-centre.html

The Megalithic Portal website has dozens of amazing photos of the crannog, its Visiting center, archeological artifacts, and even artist’s impressions of what the small man-made island may have looked like in antiquity. http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=4034

The Village of Llangors (also known as Llangorse)

In the story, Tilda lives in a cottage named Ty Gwyn in the small village of Llangors, located alongside the lake which shares its name. While the descriptions provided of Ty Gwyn are spot on with the architecture and flavor of the surrounding areas, I was not able to determine whether or not this particular cottage was a work of fiction or an actual location.

“Ty Gwyn is a humble farmworker’s cottage, positioned high on the hill and approached via a testing climb. It sits steady and serene, and ever-so-slightly smug, as if enjoying the view, and laughing just a little at the puffing people who struggle up to its blue front door. The whitewashed stone gleams in the autumn sunshine, sharp against the fading colors of the mountain pastures, while the slate roof is an exact match for the stone walls that mark the boundary of the garden.” (Page 6)

“The flat piece of garden extends only a few paces to the low stone wall that separates it from the dizzying drop to the valley below.” (Page 7)

However the village Llangors is a very real place. Located in Mid Wales, or Powys, and within the Brecon Beacons National park, Llangors is a popular stop for tourists looking to enjoy water fun on and around the lake, hike around the lake, or to trek through the nearby mountains.

The site maintained by the Langors Community Council hosts a variety of historical and factual information about the village and the lake. It also has a number of beautiful photographs. http://www.llangorse.org.uk/about-llangorse

Saint Cynog’s Church

In the story, St. Cynog’s church is only mentioned in passing as Tilda looks out over the lake and its surroundings. It is not mentioned in any of Seren’s chapters, as it was not constructed until the 15th century, a mere 600 years after her tale ends. However, the massive (60 foot in diameter) yew tree that sits upon the church’s grounds is believed to be around 6,000 years old would have been ancient even during Seren’s time. Not to mention, that trees (yew in particular) were considered sacred to the ancient pagan peoples of Great Britain.

“The church is solid, Norman, boxy and stout, built to withstand time and the damp air of the lake. Its graveyard is kempt and well used, but even so there are some ancient tombstones which lean toward each other at angles that give away their age.” (Pages 5 & 6)

You can read more about Saint Cynog’s Church and its ancient yew here:

The Old School House

In the story, the Old School House is no longer a school, but rather the home of Professor Williams. In reality, the Old School House, or Yr Hen Ysgol, is also a private residence, and appears just as it is described in the book.

“The Old School House is a building out of place. A nineteenth century idea of rural perfection, with its mullioned windows, low eaves, and rustic charm.” (Page 6)

“Tilda can see that the Old School House is unusual, and not built in the conventional architecture of the region. It is constructed of the same blue-gray stone as the church and is roofed with slates, but there the similarities cease. Every window, up and down, is mullioned and set deep in sills. There are pointy arches above the front door and the door set in the wall to the side.” (Page 40)

Photographs, as well as a history of the building, its owners, and historical significance can be found on the British Listed Buildings Website. British Listed Buildings maintains “an online database of buildings and structures that are listed as being of special architectural and historic interest. https://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/300006756-old-school-house-also-known-as-yr-hen-ysgol-llangors#.WnINBCOZPBI

The Red Lion

In the story, The Red Lion is a pub that Tilda and Dylan frequent on a couple of occasions for substance and refreshment. It is describe as being rustic and unchanged by time.

“The Red Lion sits in the center of the village of Llangors, a sturdy whitewashed building with black painted window frames and doors, and three smoking chimneys. It appears unchanged by time, so that Tilda can easily imagine weary travels or thirsty farmers, knocking the mud off their boots, and dipping their heads to enter through its low front door one, two, ore even three hundred years ago. The only concession to the modern age are the wide car park to one side – though this still boasts a hitching rail for horses, as the inn is a popular lunchtime haul for local treks – and, inside, the availability of free Wi-Fi.” (Page 104)

While the Red Lion very much is a real pub in the village of Llangors, I would not necessarily say that it had as timeless an appearance as described in the book, at least not from the photos posted on the pub’s Web site. http://www.redlionllangorse.co.uk The outside is whitewashed, with black painted windowsills, and an old low door, but the inside appears to have been redecorated with a more modern aesthetic. However, given that my visit to this pub was limited to the images I could glean from the Internet it is hard to say what it really looks like. Most of, if not all of the photos I was able to find, were of the pub set up for an event or wedding reception, or of their (drool worthy) food. Someday, I look forward to finding out in person.

Surrounding Countryside

Throughout the story, the natural beauty and breath taking views of the region are mentioned. In particular the Brecon Beacons are called out several times. This mountain range consists of 6 peaks and is one of four mountain ranges that comprise the Brecon Beacons National Park. Known to have been inhabited since Neolithic times, the area has a rich and varied history that spans centuries and has known many different peoples (Celts, Normans, Romans, Saxons…).

“Beyond the lake the Brecon Beacons rise up, an ancient shield against the wild weather and people of the west.” (Page 8)

For information and photos of the mountains, an image search on the internet is probably your best bet. However, the Brecon Beacons National Park has a lovely website that contains many photographs, as well as details about the park. http://www.breconbeacons.org

Brecon

In the story, Tilda travels to this small market town about ten miles away twice. Once to buy materials for the kiln she builds, and another to visit the museum.

A quick web search reveals three Builders Merchants in the area, but since no name was mentioned in the story, nor any specific description or identifying characteristics given, I quickly moved on to looking for the museum instead. In the story Tilda travels to Brecon via bus to visit the museum there, in hope of gaining inspiration for her pottery designs (or at least so she claims to the curator), however the name of this establishment goes unmentioned. In the Acknowledgements, the author thanks the staff at the Brecknock Museum for giving her access to artifacts from the crannog. Since this sounded very much like Tilda’s experience (minus the actual sitting in the boat itself, which Brackston solemnly swears she did not) I think it fair to say that this is the museum in question.

You can find out more about the Brecknock Museum through the Brecon Beacons National Park website, http://www.powys.gov.uk/en/museums/visit-your-local-museum/brecknock-museum-art-gallery/

Bwlch

In the story, Dylan and Tilda stop by a small market here to buy what Dylan describes as medicinal brandy. No further description or encounter is mentioned with the village, but seeing as how it is a real place, I thought I might as well mention it. Like so many other locations mentioned in this book you can find more information about it on the Brecon Beacons National Park website. http://www.breconbeacons.org/llangorse-bwlch But I think you will get a better idea of what the village looks like if you simply conduct an image search with your favorite search engine. (You won’t be disappointed.)

 

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