I like to walk this land, listen to stories and conversation, eat and drink in cafes and pubs, climb the mountains, smell the air, sit by rocks, listen to the soundscape, and fill sketchbooks with drawings of characters. These sketches are only intended for my eyes, but sometimes I work them up into illustrations for books or artwork for exhibition, or magic lantern projections during shows, or artist books that are written and illustrated in real time. They are an archive to access every time I tell a tale.
For Welsh Folk Tales, I took the unusual decision (for me) to print some of these portraits alongside the stories. They were sketched before the story was written down, so they lend a very personal and unusual touch to each tale. The purpose of visiting the landscape of the story is to embrace the unexpected, for sometimes it has a surprise in store for you.
One day, I was sat sketching by a lake in Ceredigion, Llyn Eiddwen on Mynydd Bach, when a farmer with short bottle-red hair, a ruddy outdoor face, big smile and an even bigger baggy multi-coloured jumper, and little black leggings, sat down next to me, took a biscuit tin from her bag, offered me a fairy cake, and asked, ‘What you doin', love?’
Now, I had been warned not to speak to any strange red-haired women on the Mynydd, as one is known to live in the lake where she tends her herd of snow-white cattle who paddle in the shallows at dusk. It's a similar story to the more romantic version from Llyn y Fan Fach on the Black Mountain in the Brecon Beacons, when a young man courts a lady of the Otherworld who lives beneath the lake, only for the relationship to end when he strikes her three times.
I asked the red-haired farmer if she had ever seen the red-haired Lady of Llyn Eiddwen. She bellowed with laughter, and said that no lady could ever live in Llyn Eiddwen. ‘It's full of leeches. She'd be eaten alive.’ And off she went, chuckling and giggling.
I reckon I met the red-haired lady that day. She wasn't the pre-Raphaelite I had imagined her to be. I drew a sketch, and there she is for you to see, on page twenty-six of the book. I then painted a colour portrait, which I use when I tell her story. As soon as I show it, people nod their heads knowingly. She may be a relative of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach, but these two are very different sisters, products of their own back yards.
And that's why I love to walk the land, because you never know when you might meet a Lady of the Lake, or what she might look like.