… He comes, the human child
To the waters and the wild.
W. B. Yeats, “The Stolen Child"
Hereford is a Cathedral City—which really means nothing these days. It is another country town struggling to be modern, corporate, and accepted, with the same shops, culture, and concerns of any other town in England.
In 1968, though, when I moved there as a boy, it hadn’t quite woken up to the modern world and still slept an ancient rural slumber, where myth and magic flowed through the landscapes of its strange Celtic dreams. The cathedral stood at its center, looking out over white-and black-beamed cottages and quirky alleyways, thin and winding, which led to curiosities and mysteries.
Among the town’s more famous remembered citizens was Nell Gwynne, whose tiny cottage, easily missed in a row of look-alike dwellings, squeezed itself into one of these alleys.
An impoverished “orange girl,” selling fruit to theatergoers— or, according to others, a child prostitute—Nell was born to the town in 1650. By the age of fifteen, she was an actress herself, although she may have been more courtesan than artist (when asked for her profession one day, Nell described herself not as an actress but as a “Protestant whore”). Three years later, regardless, she was the lover of Charles II, bearing him two illegitimate sons, whom she called the “little bastards.”
Despite all of this, her rags-to-riches story was still celebrated in Hereford, along with her unconventional way of achieving fame.
Her life created something of a blueprint or a journeyman’s map for how one could escape one’s fate: by using creativity, guile, and, to its fullest advantage, whatever gift that God had bestowed on you, even if it was only the ability to catch the eye of royal blood.
No matter how slim a chance, such talents offered the possibility of escape from a town that, enclosed by hills and rivers, felt imprisoned, surrounded by natural walls and under scrutiny from the ghosts of the landscape itself. Perhaps the claustrophobia of this landscape accounted for the sense one had in Hereford of always being watched by some invisible force, and of the town’s almost tangible desire to take a long-frustrated breath.
A river ran through it, snaking like a question mark—a fitting image since this river is called the Wye, its name an echo of the seeking-after-purpose that characterized the town itself and its people. It was a place in transition: backward-looking and caught in its web of history, but squinting into the future, unsure of what it would become as rumors of revolution and new values began to breach its city walls from an England poised for change and social upheaval. The people of the town were restless, not quite knowing which way to go, but anxious to begin their journey anyway after so many years of sleepwalking its streets.
Despite the developments taking place—“the red brick skin disease,” as D. H. Lawrence called it, of look-alike newly built homes being pasted onto the landscape and layered on top of the black and white—it was two buildings, or, rather, their contents and what they represented, that summed up the mood of the town, telling the people what to believe about their world: the museum and the cathedral.
In pride of place in Hereford Museum was a small effigy, a figure of a man or woman bound with the words of a curse. It was found in the town in 1960, the year of my birth, but dates back hundreds of years before that. It was thought to have been used to ruin the crops of an enemy—one of the standard methods of agricultural rivalry and witchcraft in rural villages. The words of its curse read:
I act this spell upon you from my whole heart,
wishing you to never rest
nor eat nor sleep
for the restern part of your life
Words that showed, perhaps, just how effective such magic can be, for the town itself was asleep but not sleeping, exactly as the curse had hoped for: a somnambulist lost in a maze of time that was neither the future nor the past but the betwixt-and-between of an undefined now.
The museum stands a few hundred feet from the cathedral, the juxtaposition seeming in some subtle way to capture the strange duality of the town, where paganism and Craft-based magic rub shoulders with a Christianity that is really a surface veneer. This pagan Christianity is there in the cathedral as well, leading to the odd blurring of beliefs that is typical of the Celtic way, where the old gods wear Christian robes as nature spirits dance their way through churches like invisible currents of wind.
Should your journeys ever take you to this cathedral, for example, and you enter through the Castle Green, you will pass the site of a spring—Saint Ethelbert’s Well—which, you will be told, sprang magically from the ground when Ethelbert’s dead body touched it en route to its interment and the coffin-bearers rested awhile. Offa, King of the Mercians, had betrayed Ethelbert’s love for his daughter, the princess, by having the saint’s head cut from his body, and the waters of Hereford now flow with Ethelbert’s tears.
There is a further shrine in the cathedral’s north transept, named after another saint, Thomas de Cantilupe, the Bishop of Hereford from 1275–1282, which is also the site of miracles, including seventy cases of the dead being returned to life through contact with Thomas’s relics and bones. Even Christian saints are Old World magicians in Hereford.
My family had recently moved from a city many miles away to a village just outside the town. Called Ullingswick, it is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Ullingwic, the name deriving from “Ulla’s Wick,” wick being an Anglo-Saxon corruption of the Roman viscus, “a place of significance.”
According to archeological studies, an early timber castle, known as Dunder Camp, stood to the north of the village, alongside our house, an old stone cottage called Harry’s Croft, which dated from at least the 1600s.
Its name was a coincidence, since my father was also called Harry, and a croft is a dwelling place. Perhaps coincidence is not the right word, however. My father felt, instead, that the house had been calling him, across time and space, to live there, as he had before in some previous life when he had first given it its name.
The original cottage, along with the village school and its only shop, are all gone now, although Ullingswick remains, as it always has been, an agricultural community where nature guides the day, the moon shapes the nights, and the ghosts of Dunder Camp still move about the fields.
It was as if time slowed down in this village, altered its course, or ran backwards as it wished, moving at the pace and rhythm of the wind in the trees and grass. The rivers, forests, and hills were alive and whispering their secrets.
Strange things happened in this threshold place where the world of spirit met the landscape of the physical, as though there was a symbol, a metaphor, or a myth to be uncovered behind every seeming fact.
It is in this spiritually loaded place that the story of this book really begins.
At the edge of the village, alone and isolated from the rest of the community, there was a small cottage, long fallen into disrepair. I would pass it some days on my walks and grew curious about this mysterious building, whose lopsided architecture had begun to take on the form of the land itself. It stood at a crossroads, just back from the lane, surrounded by tall bushes and trees and fronted by a tangle of blackthorn and briars. It was a walk of about a mile from my own cottage, which was closer to the center of the village, and there were no other houses near it.
It had an atmosphere or personality of its own, this tumbling, whitewashed shack, like the fairy-tale cottage of a witch—some-thing almost alive—and it snared my imagination.
Whenever I asked about it, however, or about who might live in such a twisted house, I was always met with silence or else warned to stay away. But village whispers are jungle drums, and it didn’t take long for me to learn that the place was owned by a madman, a loner, someone “not like us,” although no reasons were ever given to explain these apparent truths.
It was with these thoughts in mind one summer’s day that I stood looking at this cottage. It seemed curious, given the asymmetry of the building and its unkempt appearance, that the garden, in parts at least, looked cared for.
But even that was strange. There were no flower beds as such; in fact, there were hardly any flowers at all. Instead, what I took to be weeds grew alongside more recognizable plants, all of them laid out in semi-ordered rows, as if the gardener had intended to grow weeds and given them as much care and attention as everything else.
Just as I thought that, a movement caught my eye, and I turned back to the house, coming face-to-face for the first time with the occupant of this strange-looking dwelling: the madman himself.
In a matter of instants, while my attention had been taken by the curiosity of his garden, the madman had silently left his cottage and crossed the land between us. Now we were separated just by his unkempt hedge.
“There are no such things as weeds,” he said. These were the first words I heard him speak, and they stayed with me because just moments before I had been wondering the same thing as I looked at the arrangement of plants in his garden: what is a weed?
To me, the madman seemed ancient, but later I would learn that he was in his sixties when I met him and, with the benefit of passing time, I would say now that he was a young sixty who would pass for a man in his fifties or even his forties with a little attention to his appearance. But it was evident that vanity was not his way.
He was dressed oddly for the times (the late 1960s). While everyone else in the village wore farm overalls or jeans—the ubiquitous new fashion style—he seemed overdressed in a white collarless shirt, black trousers, and waistcoat. To enhance the effect, a gold fob-watch hung from the pocket of his waistcoat. He wore no shoes, however, or anything else on his feet.
A shock of hair fell over his grey-blue eyes, and his features were tight, not loose with age. I imagine he would have been handsome in his youth.
“What is a weed, after all?” he said to my unstated question; “A weed is simply a gift from nature that we don’t care to receive. Would you like to come in and see?”
His hand was on the gate, and I would like to say that I stepped through it without hesitation and across the threshold between us in one magical movement. The truth, however, is that my curiosity battled for a few moments against uncertainty, wariness, and even a little fear, after all I had been told about this odd little cottage and its unusual owner. I didn’t even know his name.
“Adam,” he said, stretching out his hand to shake mine.
The mystery was too thick, the adventure too rich to leave by now, so, despite my reservations, I shook his hand, and I did cross that threshold. It was the beginning of a friendship that was to last from my childhood to my adult years, although it is only now, more than thirty years later, that I realize the full implications of the time we spent together and the wisdom that Adam had to teach. And so it is only now that I can keep my promise to Adam to make his confession by the telling of his life.
As I grew to know Adam, it became clear why he lived as he did, where he did, and why he was regarded warily by others, for in his younger days, Adam had been a sin eater (bwytawr pechod in the Welsh, from which this tradition comes)—a devourer of human sins—and his was a story of the soul, what it may contain, and how it can be healed and find purpose.
These are still subjects rarely considered in mainstream life, subjects regarded as fear-filled and unnerving, in fact, since by acknowledging the soul at all we must look into our own and see what darkness it may hold.
During the time we spent together, Adam would teach me some of these secrets: what the soul is, how we might know its true intentions, and how sin can shape and corrupt it, as well as how it can be restored through spiritual practice and the power of confession, plants, rituals, and omens.
This book is a record of those teachings and how they might benefit us all so that the confusions of the world do not enter our hearts or become weights upon our souls, and so we can become happier, freer, and more certain of living our purpose.
Maybe every country and every village of the world has its Adam. If so, you will find him in some strange place beyond the boundaries of a town whose very reason for existence seems to be the asking of a question. His life will be a whispered secret, and he will act with a special knowingness that others will call madness or eccentricity. He will tell you that the veil between worlds is thinner than you have been led to believe.
Those who find the sin eater will leave their encounter with a sense of the strangeness of life and the realization that there are things that move in darkness which influence all who walk in sunlight. If chance should take you to a meeting of this kind, you will understand the meaning of your soul.