On the Road
June 2016… a journey into the ancient and sacred places of Wales…
We were heading into the west… over the border. Our destination? Friday. Other than that and the hotel we’d booked for the night, we had few plans. For now, it was Wednesday morning and we were enjoying roads that took us through pretty Cotswold villages and past churches, ancient sites and inns where we would normally have given in to the temptation to stop…but we had a long drive ahead.
The Silent Eye’s Whispers in the West weekend was due to begin on Friday afternoon at a beach near St David’s, the westernmost point of Wales. We had been due to visit Ireland, yet once again, the prospective house-move had rearranged our plans…which ought to have been a clear enough message… we go where we are called, when we are called… not where we choose. Last time we had tried to force the issue, I had ended up in the burns unit of the local hospital. This time, at least, the house-move had finally happened. And a couple of extra days in Wales would be good.
We did have a first destination. It is always good to have somewhere to aim for, even if you get sidetracked… which we usually do. The idea of the Silent Eye landscape weekends is to start with a theme and a loose structure and see what happens. They are not guided tours… although we are guided around these places by a companion who knows and loves them. They are not walking holidays… though we sometimes walk a lot. They are not teaching sessions, though we share and learn a good deal. They are not structured rituals, though they may contain rituals and we approach them with the same intent and reverence for what each of us, individually, holds sacred. What they are times out of time, when the world and its cares are allowed to take second place, where companionship and discussion have time to unfold. Times when there is space for spirit to move where it will, within the beauty of a landscape that speaks to the mind, heart and soul through the experience of the senses.
We knew that we would be going back in time with many of the sites we would visit over the weekend, but we had time to skip across the continuum for a while and would start a mere thousand years ago. There was a place we had both long wanted to visit and it was this that saw us heading towards a small Herefordshire village.
Between the fifth and seventh centuries, it lay in the Welsh kingdom of Ergyng. By the ninth century, the political landscape had shifted and it was part of the great kingdom of Mercia. After the Norman invasion of 1066, the area was known as Archenfield and governed as part of the Welsh Marches. It was not until the sixteenth century that it finally became part of Herefordshire.
The Welsh name of the village was Llanddewi Kil Peddeg, meaning the ‘church of St David’ and ‘cell of Peddeg’, immortalising a forgotten hermit perhaps. Today, we know it as Kilpeck, and as home to the most extraordinary little church…
An Extraordinary Place
“What are those? ” The bumps in the fields as we drove down the narrow lane looked suspiciously like the remnants of early occupation.
“They look like earthworks…” It would make sense, the little church we were heading for was old and the site upon which it now stood even older. Many of the best of these old churches were built upon ancient sites. Sometimes, we believe, it was because they were sites of ancient sanctity and that is where the local folk chose to honour this new face of divinity. Sometimes it was the priests and lords who chose to take over the old site, following the directive from Rome to occupy them so that the inhabitants simply came to their accustomed sacred place and were converted almost by default.
Once a church was established, it was not unusual for subsequent generations to demolish and rebuild on the earlier foundations and many of our thousand-year old churches have been places of worship for a great deal longer than we know. The current church at Kilpeck was built around AD 1140. It stands on what is thought to be the site of a much older, probably Saxon church and within a raised, oval churchyard that is typical of even older, Celtic churches. The Christian tradition in the area dates back at least as far as the late Roman period, and the Romans left Britain for good in AD 410. There may well be Roman remains at the site and there has been some suggestion of it being a megalithic site before that, although nothing has yet been found to definitively confirm this theory.
We knew it had a few special things to discover, but we had not done our research beforehand. We seldom do, preferring to find what is there without preconceptions and without spoiling the sense of awe and surprise. The research comes later. Even from a distance, we could tell that the red sandstone church was unusual with its curved apse, though, to be fair, the stonework looked in such good condition that we feared that it would prove rebuilt and over-restored. Still, we had largely come to see one small carving, so the rest didn’t matter much.
“Er… there’s a castle next door….” I parked the car. We grabbed the cameras and got out.
“What’s left of one anyway. On a mound.” Now, these old mounds are a bit of a mystery. Most of them are listed as ‘Norman, motte and bailey’, but many are not in defensible positions, nor do they have a large enough summit to be anything more than watchtowers.
Many indeed, stand near exceptionally defensible positions that have been pointedly ignored by their Norman builders. And, with the known mounds of extreme antiquity and unknown but obviously significant purpose, like Silbury and Marlborough dotting the landscape, we have wondered if the siting of these ‘motte and baileys’ was not more to prove political supremacy by the invaders, by taking over and placing their stamp upon important sites, than a purely defensive measure.
But there we were, speculating again already, and we hadn’t even left the car. We walked up to the church and my jaw dropped. The door was surrounded by carvings, so crisp, so clear and fresh that they could have been done yesterday. Yet the board by the nominal of the little church of St Mary and St David had said that they were all original.
“They can’t be original. They must be restored….” It didn’t seem possible… but they are. Nine hundred years old and almost pristine.
“It’s extraordinary.” I forced my mouth shut and switched on the camera. It didn’t matter where you looked… the doorway kept on revealing itself. Dragons curved over the arch and up the columns. Beak-head masks of strange, fantastic creatures looked down, framing a tree of life. Foliage held twin birds… a disgorging Green Man… more entwined and sinuous dragons, figures both human and angelic… it was incredible!
There are birds and beasts, a manticore and a basilisk, there are serpents swallowing their tails and the human figures, looking surprisingly modern in their trousers. It is all original. For some time it was hidden beneath a wooden porch, removed in 1868 to allow the door to be seen as it was intended by its makers. A narrow lead strip was inserted to protect against water running off from the walls a hundred years later. Other than that, the door is as it has always been… incredible. And that was just the door.
“Look up.” Right above the centre of the door, the symbol of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, formed one of the corbels supporting the roof. That was one of the few we would recognise… the rest were to prove much, much stranger….
The Kilpeck Corbels
Kilpeck’s bellcote reminded me of the first church we had visited, where our adventures had begun, though this one is a nineteenth century addition, carved and decorated in keeping with the rest of the building; restorations have been gentle here. But it was a small carving we had mainly come to see, one of the corbels… and probably one of the most famous and photographed corbels on any church. But first, we had to find it. You wouldn’t think that finding a corbel would be all that difficult… they support the roof, so you know where to look… but…
…where on earth do you start with the corbels at Kilpeck church? Like the fabulous door, they have survived almost entirely intact. Originally, there were ninety-one of them, holding up the carved and decorated eaves of the roof. Now there are fewer… a ‘mere’ eighty-four survive after nearly nine hundred years. Plus the heads that flank the windows. And the great dragons or serpents that watch over the west end of the church. And… well, it just goes on and on…
If we needed any reminder of how much of the visual language of such carvings we have lost over the centuries, Kilpeck would do the trick. There are birds, fish and beasts… an entire bestiary of them… but closer inspection reveals they are not all quite what they first appear to be. Many of the designs seem to contain human heads.
Others look surprisingly modern…
Others are very strange, with figures clasped in their mouths.
You could spend a lifetime just studying these carvings.
The corbel that had made us decide to visit Kilpeck was the famous Sheela na gig. This enigmatic figure is found on many ancient churches and castles throughout France, Britain and Ireland. Nothing is known about her for certain although many books and theories have been put forward. Some regard her merely as a warning against the sin of carnal desire, others see her as a representation of the mother goddess. One theory suggests she guards against the evil eye and protects against demons. Others refer to the liminal nature of the gates of birth while some see her as little more than a fertility symbol and in some areas, there is a tradition that the figures were shown to brides.
Perhaps, as most church sources suggest, they were just a warning… a moral compass with a threat of punishment, but I think there is more to it than that. I am reminded of the ancient Greek story of Demeter and Persephone, when the mother, grieving for her lost daughter, abducted and carried away to the Underworld, met an old crone. When all else had failed to cheer the broken-hearted mother, the crone, Baubo, lifted her skirts, exposing her genitals… at which Demeter burst out laughing and was restored. A similar tale was told in ancient Egypt where Ra, the All-Father was depressed and shut himself away during the contending of Horus and Set for the throne of Osiris. The goddess Hathor exposed herself before him, making him laugh and shake off his depression in order to resolve the conflict between the younger gods.
We will probably never know for certain what this, or many of the figures once meant to those who carved them or those who looked up to ‘read’ them.For myself, I wonder if we don’t over-think these things sometimes. That there was a symbolic language is beyond doubt… but would the ordinary serf have been privy to all its nuances? Maybe the answers lie not in academia, but in our own human reactions to these images.
Given that they decorate a church, a holy place, some may well be reinforcing the idea that sinning against the rules of the Church will be punished in unimaginable ways… but maybe, just maybe, they are reminding us too that love, laughter, joy and the human life we live stem from the same source and should also be held sacred.
Kilpeck’s West Window
You’d have to go a long way to beat the door at Kilpeck church, but the western wall has a place all of its own. You might be forgiven for thinking it was a bit of Norse construction and the swirling lines of carving look like zoomorphic creatures, or Celtic knots… but not your typical Norman… or anything you might reasonably expect to find adorning a church in a tiny English village five miles from the Welsh border. Yet, at first glance, you might miss it.
Three huge stone dragons, with protruding and coiled tongues, jut out from the corners of the wall and below the west window. A fourth is broken. Each of them is different, as if showing the sequence of the opening of the mouth… which makes them sound rather Egyptian too, though I wonder how much the inner meaning of such symbolism is universal.
The dragons do not go unchallenged though… a dog, or more probably a lion, bites at its neck. A fleur de lys curls around the attacker, and I wonder what that might mean. Is it a political statement about the overlordship of the Norman invaders or a reference to the Virgin Mary whose symbol is a lily? The strength of arms overcoming the vanquished? The strength of purity subduing the dragon energies? Or an illustration of the fact that love, life and death are rooted in the Mother, the Divine feminine?
The line of corbels continues around the building and the columns of the west window itself are deeply carved with the most intricate of interwoven patterns. Just that alone must have taken months of painstaking labour. The carvings are of the Herefordshire School of stonemasons and may have been inspired by carvings seen on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
The capitals of the columns are Green Men… disgorging heads, from whose mouths curl something of a similar pattern to the knotwork, but which appear to terminate in a serpent’s head. The whole of the exterior of the church is simply fantastic. Which probably meant that the interior would be quite simple. It often is a case of one or the other with the decorations, but not both. We could only wait and see…
It was either going to be spectacular… or very plain. Probably the latter, as we have found that with the highly decorated churches, it tends to be one or the other, inside or out. It was, then, no surprise to open the door to a calm and simple interior full of soft light. Except… well, the font was pretty spectacular in its own way. The huge bowl dates back to a time when baptism involved more than a trickle of holy water on the brow. It still had the place for the locks too… once upon a time, holy water could be stolen for purposes more akin to sorcery than religion. And it was older than the church… much older in fact and may have belonged to a previous, Saxon church on the site, making it well over a thousand years that it has been used within the community. It used to stand under the chancel arch, with the Devil’s Door to the north so the devil could escape the touch of baptismal water.
It is a beautiful church, its simplicity and serenity untouched by time and the passing of countless feet. But its simplicity is deceptive, for on closer inspection, it begins to yield its treasures.
It is built as a three-cell church, with nave, chancel and an unusual semicircular apse. The chancel arches and ribs are of the same red sandstone as the exterior and the carvings are just as well preserved. The arch itself is decorated simply, with typical Norman geometric patterns.
The capitals of the columns are carved with the ‘True Vine’ that represents Jesus as the Son of God. The vine bears fruit and is the same pattern as the latticework carved on the west window and the foliage coming from the mouths of the Green Men. The symbolism of life and rebirth is obvious and harks back to even older faiths. Even in Egypt, Osiris was depicted as green.
Beneath the capitals are carved figures of saints. While some look like ecclesiastics, and one holds a key so is presumably St Peter, the others remain unidentified.
The inspiration for the arch is thought to have been taken from the Silversmiths’ Gate at Santiago de Compostela, one of the most important places of Christian pilgrimage. The figures are curious. The bottom two appear to be tonsured monks and are smaller than the saints. In many ancient cultures… like the Egyptian and mediaeval paintings that we can still see so clearly… importance was denoted by relative size. I have to wonder if here the carvings are not reminding the congregation that the exoteric Church is of less importance than the saints it ‘supports’… that the earthly Church is less than Divinity. A reminder of humility, at a time when the priesthood held much power in the land.
Beyond the arch stands a very curious holy water stoup that would have once stood at the doors of the church for the congregation. It was brought from a chapel in the nearby Forest of Treville, near Wormbridge… a name to conjure with, given the plethora of dragons here… and is older even than the font.
A bowl upon an inverted bowl, with hands resting as if upon a pregnant belly. A girdle beneath the belly has four serpents heads hanging from it. It is not Norman. It is probably not even Saxon, but may to be even older than that. You have to ask yourself, given the symbolism, if it was ever a Christian piece to begin with…
The apse holds the altar and it is a beautiful place. There are only three small stained glass windows in the church, all Victorian, arranged around the semicircle of the apse. The Lamb of God to the left, King David, complete with Goliath’s severed head to the right and presumably King Solomon in the centre. The figures are each set within a vesica, a feminine symbol, between encircled, leafy crosses. The windows are by Augustus Pugin, best known for the interior design of the Palace of Westminster.
Few of these early apses survive and we see themmost often on churches with Templar associations. Most have been replaced with rectangular chancels, yet there is something very personal about the space. The curving ceiling represented the arch of heaven to the early Christians and to stand between the pillars before the altar seems an intimate glimpse of union with the divine, an invitation to a higher state of being.
Four stone ribs support the arch, carved like flowing water issuing from the mouths of four heads. Four seems an important number in this particular church, and it had kept cropping up. We do not know what these four heads and streams represent. They could be the four rivers that flowed from the Garden of Eden. They might refer to four rivers that flow into the Wormbrook close by. Or they might have something to do with the stream of pure water that follows the centre line of the church, rising immediately below these four heads. Oddly enough, the church’s own information board says that dowsers have reported that four streams flow in to this point.
It is just a village church, a small place in the middle of fields that has preserved some of the most incredible stonework… as well as an atmosphere of gentle peace. Yet it was not always so. Once, the church served a noble lord and his household and the uneven fields still hold traces that speak of the daily lives of the villagers who also served. We left the cool interior of the little church. Outside, there was yet more to see… though we would have to read the land, now, not the stones.
Why does a tiny village like Kilpeck hold such a fabulous church? Because once it wasn’t a small, forgotten place, but the seat of nobility and, according to the information board, parts of the castle still remained. We left the church by the straight, modern path that crosses the remains of the moat and leads to the castle. The old path through the churchyard to the church door zigzags like the Norman decoration of the arches… the devil and unquiet ghosts, it was believed, can only follow a straight path. It felt as if we were the ghosts in this place.
The sky was darkening, casting threatening shadows over the land and turning the damp greenery too vivid for reality. The rain had brought impossible colour to the summer landscape. Our first glimpse of the castle showed us the remains of a large, steep-sided mound with the jagged and broken teeth of crumbling walls as its crown. Little remains of the stonework, but the earthworks are impressive enough.
The first known ‘castle’ on the site was a motte and bailey topped by a timber structure. It was built around 1090 by William Fitz Norman de la Mare, who was given the lands by William the Conqueror. The area was then known as Archenfield and the castle was to be an administrative centre. The timber structure was later replaced by a stone keep of which little now remains.
The earthworks are still impressive though and from the summit, not only can you see for miles, but you can still see the depth of the ditches and easily defensible height of the motte, with its steep drop into the river valley below.
The motte is the central mound upon which the keep was built to house the nobles and fighting men. Sometimes they were built on natural mounds, sometimes they were built, using the earth from the ditches to create the highest possible defensive platform. Sometimes they would use older earth-mounds, like barrows and other sacred sites as the basis for their building and the labyrinthine approaches to some of the castles look remarkably like the more ancient hillforts. Without excavation, it is often impossible to determine the age or origin of the hill.
The bailey was an enclosed area, usually surrounded by a palisade and ditch, within the shadow of the motte. There might be one or many such enclosures, to hold and protect livestock, grain and supplies and those who served the castle. There are traces of an older enclosure at Kilpeck, that of an Anglo-Saxon village at the site predating the Normans. The tantalising information in the church had said that the site also contains traces of Roman occupation and possible megalithic remains, though there has been little excavation. There were hints of a Templar connection too. The suspicious ‘lumps and bumps’ we had spotted in the fields as we drove into the village turned out to be the remains of the village that had served the castle. It had been a place of considerable importance and was granted a charter in 1309, with the right to hold a weekly market and a two-day fair twice a year.
With the clouds looming ever more threateningly, we headed back to the car. This had only been our first stop of the journey and we had spent more time here than we had expected. Not that we were in a hurry… as long as we made the hotel that night, we had no plans. We had, however, been working while we gazed upon the ancient carvings and ruined castle… and came away with some wonderful shots that we will use in the new book. Our holidays are never just holidays…
I’d seen the name when I’d planned the route… though ‘planned’ may be stretching things a bit far; I had a vague idea and my companion had a map. From Kilpeck to Rhyader, somewhere near which we would find our hotel, there are perfectly good ‘A’ roads and the fifty mile trip should take no more than about an hour. But with a ‘B’ road that passes through something called Golden Valley, and through villages with names like Kingstone and Dorstone before leading you up a track called Arthur’s Stone Lane… well, the ‘A’ roads were never really an option. Especially when I’d seen ‘King Arthur’s Stone’ marked in telltale brown on the map.
Not that we had any idea what King Arthur’s Stone might be. “Probably just an erratic,” and if so, we would probably miss it. Such things are seldom signposted and one odd boulder in a field has little to distinguish it from any other boulder unless you get up close. “It could be miles from the road.” Given the amount of rain we’d had, neither of us fancied getting muddied up to the eyeballs for an erratic… a random stone dumped on the landscape by a long ago glacier. It was probably a wild goose chase… and I was loath to give my companion another reason to expound upon the wandering stones theory.
But we were in luck. A sharp and unexpected turn led us up a narrow lane, following the signs for King Arthur’s Stone, before an even sharper turn onto a broken track, barely wide enough for the car’s wheelbase. A track, moreover, that seemed intent on getting narrower and leading us into the middle of nowhere… which was fine. It is where we generally end up after all. The road surface started to disappear too, but, just when we were convinced we must have missed whatever-it-was… we saw it. Right next to the track and unmissable for all sorts of reasons.
“It reminds me of something…” Goosebumps. The site looks out over the Golden Valley, right across to the distant Brecon Beacons, but we weren’t looking at the view. We were looking at twenty-five tonnes of rock balanced delicately upon a number of uprights within the remains of a neolithic mound. The capstone has split, with part of its underside fallen into the chamber.
“I’ve dreamed this place…” We explored, counting the nine, pointed stones that once supported the great capstone of the burial chamber. Raised around five and a half thousand years ago, it would have been covered with a huge earthen mound, shaped like a prehistoric axe. A place where the bones of the ancestors were kept and visited, where their bones marked the place of their people and where, perhaps, it was hoped they would lend their aid and wisdom to their kin.
“It’s incredible…” We had never seen anything like the angled passageway before that would once have led into the mound. That was a first. The association with King Arthur was not. Many stones bear the name of the archetypal Warrior. This one has a number of legends… it may have been built to mark one of his battles. Or it may be more likely that the giant he fought there really did leave the mark of his elbow in the stone when he fell…certainly, the depression is visible. Or perhaps that was the mark left by Arthur’s knees when he knelt to pray…
“It seems familiar…” Well, it has history… and not just the Arthurian kind that illustrates how fluid time is when history becomes legend. The historical King Arthur, if such there was, lived around a mere fifteen hundred years ago… about four thousand years too late for the building of the tomb. But King Charles gathered his armies here and dined at the stone in 1645. Celebrations and dancing were held at the site until the middle of the nineteenth century… and for some unfathomable reason, there was a Baptist service held at the stones too, on the fourth Sunday every July… Not just time, but focus is fluid where legend is concerned.
“Look…” The robin waited until I’d taken a picture, watching us with its head on one side, ‘almost looks as if it wanted to say something to us.’ I really should have realised then, but it wasn’t until much later, researching the site, that I found at least one of the things this otherworldly place reminded me of.
‘Deep magic from the dawn of time…’ and the broken Stone Table in Narnia upon which Aslan was slain by the White Witch, only to rise again because of a deeper magic still, written into being before the dawn of time. It was from this place that C.S.Lewis had drawn the inspiration for the Stone Table. Perhaps Lewis too had caught an echo of ancient whispers on the wind, a shadow of a belief that life, death and birth are but part of an endless cycle of which we, too are a part.
Googling the Road to Nowhere
“Nine hours…” We had finally made it to Rhyader as the sodden daylight was fading. “Nine..”
We’d only stopped once more on the way and that was to take on board some necessary refreshment. We’d called at the first pub we’d found, just across the Welsh border and the very English barman, choosing to perpetuate a travellers’ myth, had preferred to talk to his regulars than take a food order from travellers. We were hungry.
We sat out in the pretty beer garden, set high above the river and my ravenous companion laughingly chanted for the rains to come and wash the place away. The heavens obligingly opened and for the next hour we drove in lashing rain, low visibility and damp clothes. I believe the pub remained dry…
To be fair, it had only been six hours on the road. The other three we had been wandering the sacred sites of Kilpeck and King Arthur’s Stone. Even so, we were tired. I’d been to work before we left, and the extra couple of hours on top of travelling made it a long day… we were ready for a drink, dinner and some relaxation. All we needed was the hotel.
We do not get lost. We may, occasionally, become slightly misplaced. Nor do we ever go the wrong way. It is always the right way, even if we don’t always know it at the time. In the same way that life gives us what we need, rather than always what we would choose, roads take you where you ought to be, rather than where you think you want to go. Usually. The road looked like the right one, according to the map when we stopped to check it. Hills… valleys… river… waterfall… pretty much what it was supposed to have, and pretty much where it was supposed to be. The trouble was there were no signposts.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere…”
“…again…” For some reason, I rather liked that idea.
“No, you’re not getting it. We’re in the middle of nowhere… now-here…” I wasn’t going to argue. There were hills. And kites flying overhead. And everything. Here and Now looked pretty perfect to me.
Except for the non-appearance of the hotel. Which was advertised with mountain views, so we might be going the right way.
“We’re going the wrong way.”
Thankfully, there was absolutely nowhere to turn round on the narrow road without risking the rain-sodden ground, so I was obliged to continue driving over the hills, surrounded by mountains and sky and trying, probably unsuccessfully, to seem concerned.
I finally managed to find a safe turning spot, right on a hairpin bend and we headed back to Rhyader to try to find another road out of town. I had, very sensibly I thought, printed off the Google map for the last couple of miles between Rhyader and the hotel. By dint of completely ignoring Google’s directions, we finally found ourselves on the correct road. The other one had been the right one as far as I was concerned and I knew which way we would be going come morning! Food for the soul. Meanwhile, the body also had requirements … and we pulled into the car park of our hotel just in time for dinner.
Ghosts and Custard
The trouble with booking a hotel online is that you have very little idea of what you are going to get. Sure, there may be reviews that give an idea of service and quality, but that actually tells you very little about the ‘feel’ of the place. We don’t need much. It is usually just an overnighter with something to eat and drink, so as long as it is clean, comfortable and hassle-free, that will do. Sometimes, though, we get lucky.
Okay, our idea of lucky may not be the same as everyone else’s. We don’t go in for shiny chrome and glass confections, any more than we do formality. Our idea of changing for dinner on these trips probably just means something less muddy on our feet, although I may remember to drag a comb through my hair and apply a bit of lipstick. I liked the place as soon as I saw the bar. A tad unusual. ‘Quirky’ is the buzz-word that comes to mind. Plus, I’d spotted a Stowfords pump…
The landlady, Penny, was friendly, down to earth and smiled. Always a good start. She showed us upstairs with obvious pride. You could see why… a lot of thought and care has gone into the place in the few years she has been there. The eigthteenth century inn has a character all its own. You can usually tell how well a place looks after its guests by the little touches… like how many biscuits they leave… and Penny had stocked the trays well.
We pretty much went straight down to dinner. I was initially disappointed… the Stowfords was off, but the local cider was at least as good. We went for a vegetable curry which elicited an immediate enquiry about whether we wanted vegetarian breakfasts, and then a fruit crumble with loads of proper custard, not these fancy little milk jugs with a spoonful of the stuff. Lashings of it. See, that’s the kind of thing that makes all the difference. Apart from the fact we were so stuffed we could barely breathe. So, we went out for a walk as the sun was going down to let gravity aid digestion. The hills, even in the fading light, were beautiful.
Back in the main bar, the regulars welcomed us in and told us wonderful stories about the village’s past… of shipping Christmas geese to London overnight by train, of the way the village had changed with the loss of the railway, of childhood and winters long gone. We could have stayed there talking all evening, but it had been a long, long day.
It is places like this that remind you that a public house was always just that… a home opened to welcome travellers. We were made to feel very much at home and would have happily stayed longer if we could. After a breakfast designed to fuel a small army for the day, Penny told us a bit more about the inn and its other ‘residents’.
The name, Mid-Wales Inn, is not fanciful, as the geographic centre of Wales, according to one method of measurement, is situated right in the centre of the dining room. Which might help explain some of the ghostly activity, from hoses that switch themselves on, to terrified chambermaids and sightings by guests. Now, we would have taken all this with a pinch of salt… a great set of tales to tell credulous guests. Except for the tangible presence I had felt in the hallway… and the self-opening doors in our room… You can see why we felt we’d fallen lucky. So, if you’re ever around Rhyader and Pant y Dwr… and you are looking for a place to stay where you don’t mind the company of the odd unseen guest… you won’t be disappointed.
N.B. In case anyone is wondering… we were not asked for a review, we neither asked for nor received a discount, this is simply a personal account of a stay we really enjoyed, in a very warm, welcoming and very friendly place.
We were fed and watered… very well-fed, in fact after a home-cooked Welsh breakfast at the Mid-Wales Inn… and on the road early. The weather was finally dry, the sun attempting to peep through the clouds… and there was the little matter of the mountain road we had stumbled upon the day before. With a little manoeuvering, we had managed to plan a route that would necessitate driving its full length north-westwards.
Not as far north as we had originally planned… we had taken longer than expected the day before to get this far and the timings were all wrong for one of the places we had wanted to visit. That was a bit of a disappointment perhaps, but our plans are generally flexible enough to stretch wherever the imagination takes us.
With red kites wheeling overhead, we set off along the narrow road that runs through the Elan Valley. We would miss the dams, but, impressive though they are, we were going the wrong way for them. On the other hand… we had the roads largely to ourselves, apart from the suicidal sheep that, as in Yorkshire, wander the roads as freely as they do the hills.
And the hills were beautiful. The road we took runs for about fifteen miles from Rhyader, through Cwmystwyth to Pontarfynach. So far we were doing well… our destinations had vowels accessible to the English tongue. Fifteen miles on a deserted road does not take much above fifteen minutes… give or take an hour and a half when you get distracted…
It would probably have taken even longer, but we were conscious of a need to actually get a little closer at some point of the day to where we planned on staying. Sensibly, we had booked a hotel within striking distance of where we were meeting our companions the following day for the start of the Silent Eye weekend.
But honestly, how could we not stop? If it wasn’t waterfalls and wildflowers, it was industrial archaeology… or incredible vistas that lift the soul to heaven. The morning light carried mist that softened distance, but held that particular clarity the you find in the green places high above sea level.
Near Cwmystwyth, we found the mines. The derelict buildings and the area around them are classed as a scheduled monument. Lead, copper and silver have been mined here for centuries, with early finds placing the activity right back to prehistory, to the time of the ancient Britons and later, through the Roman occupation until the early part of the twentieth century.
Not only silver has been found here though. Wales does have rare deposits of gold in the hills and the royal wedding rings have been made from Welsh gold since 1923, but the gold found in this spot was in the shape of the Banc Ty’nddôl sun-disc. This small artefact, possibly used as a cloak clasp, was found with bone deposits and has been given an age of four thousand years old.
For me, though, the silver streams that tumble down the hillsides are more precious than the metals they once washed. There are jewels enough in the colours of the foxgloves and gold in the buttercups that strew the banks, catching the sun in their petals.
The hills and scree finally gave way to trees and managed woodlands. At the top of a hill we came upon a strange sight…and archway from nothing to nowhere straddles the older track. We pulled over to investigate, finding that it had been built to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of George III in 1810 by Thomas Johnes of Hafod.
The view was magnificent from that point at Penbwlchbodcoll – “the head of the pass of lost existence”, which is a name that leaves you speculating and philosophising for the next several miles.
We had spent an hour and a half covering fifteen miles and were sorry to come to the crossroads at its end. It had been a drive through paradise, but we were going to the Devil… or at least to the bridge he had built…
Going to the Devil
At the end of the mountain road we had taken lies a small community clinging to the sides of the gorge above the River Rheidol. Pontarfynach, though, is named for the Afon Mynach, one of its tributaries, that tumbles, roars and swirls its way down the mountainside, spanned by a bridge built, so the story goes, by the Devil himself.
Many waterfalls and streams lead into the Mynach. Megan’s cow had strayed to the far side of the river and the water had risen, flooding the deep ravine. She did not know how the cow had crossed, only that she could not get it back. The cow and her dog were all that she had in the world and Megan was devastated.
A kindly monk saw her distress and asked her what was wrong. Hearing the sorry tale, the monk offered to build a bridge across the raging waters so that Megan might recover her errant cow. The old lady, however, was suspicious. She had seen that the monk’s robes covered knees that seemed to bend the wrong way and a cloven foot. Still, she needed the cow… and she could not cross alone. The water cut deep cauldrons in the rock as it churned and sent a great waterfall spewing beyond the crevice…
She asked what the monk would require in return for his services. He asked for the first living thing that crossed the bridge once it was built. Reluctantly, Megan agreed to his terms and went back to her cottage to wait until the bridge was completed.
She came when he called and saw a span of stone across the ravine and her cow happily grazing, but still on the other side. The monk demanded his payment. “Is it strong enough to bear my weight?” asked the dame, who had hatched a plan of her own whilst she waited. In spite of the monk’s assurances, she continued to eye the bridge with doubt, while its builder became more and more impatient.
“Is it strong enough to hold the weight of a loaf?” asked Megan, drawing a loaf of bread from beneath her shawl. The Devil laughed, “Of course it is! Try it and see!” Megan threw the loaf right across the bridge… and her little dog, used to chasing the morsels of bread that she threw for him in play, ran straight across the bridge after the loaf.
The dog was the first living soul to cross the bridge… the Devil was furious! What use was the soul of a silly little dog to him? With a foul stench of brimstone, he vanished into thin air, his plans thwarted by the old dame. Megan recovered her cow and kept her dog… and the Devil was never seen again in Wales. Or so the old tales tell…
Today the Devil’s Bridge still stands. The best view is obtained by descending the damp, stone steps of Jacob’s Ladder, where the noise of the water becomes deafening and exhilarating and the rocks, worn by the force of the water, shine like glass. Above the original bridge is another stone bridge, built in 1753. It was left in place when the third, the iron bridge that is in use today, was built in 1901.
Archaeologists and historians, giving little credence to Megan’s perspicacity or the presence of the Devil, have dated the original bridge to some time between AD 1075 and 1200. They believe it to have been built by the monks of Strata Florida where, oddly enough, we were going next.
Personally, I like Megan’s story better… and wonder about the symbolism of a loaf of bread that saved a soul.
The Valley of the Flowers
The rain hammered against the car. We’d been twiddling our thumbs for a while, attempting to keep the windows from steaming up too badly while we grazed on what we had in the glove compartment, looked at the map and tried, unsuccessfully, to read the information board in front of which we had parked. The sun had fled the scene. Thunder rumbled overhead and the ‘Valley of Flowers’ was pretty much invisible.
Somewhere beyond the curtain of rain lay a beautiful valley nestled in the circling green of the hills. Even closer lay the ruined Abbey of Strata Florida that we had come to see. Yet all we could see was water and the blurred shapes of departing cars. No-one was fool enough to be wandering round ruins in this weather.
“How deep is it?”
“I’ll get the Wellies…” No-one, that is, except us.
The rain began to ease a little as we sploshed through the running puddles towards the Abbey. In the twelfth century, a group of Cistercian monks had begun to build a community in the area. The Abbey was founded around 1164, under the patronage of Rhys ap Gruffydd, with the church being consecrated in 1201.
The Abbey assumed an important place in Welsh politics and religion, and eleven princes of the Welsh Royal House of Dinefwr were buried there as well as the monks themselves. Then, in In 1401, Strata Florida Abbey was taken by King Henry IV and his son. Considering the monks guilty of supporting Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion, the community was evicted from the Abbey, though its final demise did not come until it was dissolved in 1539 under Henry VIII’s reforms of the Church.
Little remains of the Abbey at first glance, apart from the arch and the outline. Local buildings seem to wear its stone and memory, but there are a series of chapels that are quite unique. Their altars long stood open to the sky and the winds, but their floors remain, beautifully laid with medieval tiles.
Simple roofing now protects them, lending a shadow of intimacy once again to the little chapels. Where the rain had splashed the tiles, the colours sang once more and the intricacy of their designs could be seen, including not just geometries and floral patterns, but mythical creatures and, famously, a gentleman looking at his reflection in a mirror.
Here and there, odd details remain to show the erstwhile splendour of the Abbey. A carving on the gate, the base of a column, a spiral staircase…
And on the hill, a fourteen foot oak sculpture by Glenn Morris remembers those who have come in pilgrimage to the site over the centuries.
The torrential rain was a blessing in disguise. We had the Abbey to ourselves for quite some time, long enough to do what we had come to do, watched only by the birds and the Pilgrim.
The rain had filled the sunken well that once stood at the Crossing of the Abbey church. Its steps were washed clean and its water a pure gift from the heavens. Mainstream sources say little of this holy well and its odd position within the church. A place of baptism? For the ritual washing of the feet? This was important to the Cistercians in memory of Jesus, who had washed the feet of the disciples. Or perhaps the holy well is older than the stones that contain it..? Removing our boots, we descended the steps of this ancient well.
There was something else here too that we needed to see. On the transept wall is a huge stone, engraved in Welsh, that commemorates the poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, one of the leading Welsh poets and one of the great poets of the Middle Ages. Dafydd was born around 1315 and died young. Even so, over a hundred and seventy of his poems survive. He wrote of courtly love and of nature… as well as more earthy delights, capturing a moment in the mind of man.
… so it looked as if we needed to go and find an ancient yew tree and pay our respects.
The Poet’s Yew
The rain continued as we walked from the Abbey to the church, the sky heavy and grey. Even the shelter of the trees was not enough to protect the lens from the constant drops, but it began to ease as we sought the solitary yew in the churchyard, beside which the mediaeval poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, is though to be buried, although there is a dispute as to whether Strata Florida or Talley Abbey holds the poet’s remains.
There are disputes too about the dates of his birth and death, though all agree that he lived in the mid-1300s, writing poems of nature, love and laughter that are still known and loved today. It seemed fitting that a bard should be buried beside a yew, one of the land’s sacred trees and as long-lived as verse. The hollow trunk seemed a portal to another world and, if Daffyd is not buried there… he should be.
The rain paused for a moment, allowing us a good look at the Valley of the Flowers and its hills. It is a truly beautiful spot. Above us we saw that the Pilgrim had company…and wings.
We walked around the outside of the little church to where an ancient cross stands against the eastern wall. This is far older than the Abbey, and was carved well over a thousand years ago, showing how long this site has been a holy place to the Christians… and how long before that had it held mystery and enchantment for those to whom divinity wore another guise?
The rain felt it had given us long enough to ponder, so we escaped into the little church. A tiny place, built in 1815 with stones from the Abbey itself, it stands on the site of a church dating back to 1700… which in turn occupied the site of the Abbey’s infirmary.
It is a very simple place, with little decoration and a quiet serenity that sits well with the memory of the monks who once gave their lives into the keeping of their God. The font looks old, but is impossible to date. There is little visible history here, yet it occupies a site of ancient sanctity.
The oldest known item in the church, apart from the font, is the pulpit, carved with the date 1724 and a cryptic set of letters that have yet to be deciphered. There are beautiful modern windows though, made in 1961 by Whitefriars Glass, the oldest makers of stained glass in Britain, which seemed appropriate, as the Cistercians were known as the White Monks for their habits.
David, the patron saint of Wales is depicted with St Bernard of Clairvaux, patron of the Cistercian order and a central figure in the early history of the Knights Templar. Saint Anne and St Non adorn another window, while behind the altar is an interesting depiction of the Last Supper.
My favourite, though, is the depiction of St Francis of Assisi, “Where there is peace and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor doubt. “
The shifting light showed us a change in the weather once more as we left the calm interior for the churchyard. Burials still take place here and there are flowers dotting the dark stones of the memorials. Not all the graves are marked, though. In the eighteenth century, such was the poverty amongst the lead miners, that they would bring their dead at night, secretly, for burial and a field of unmarked graves remains. We looked up one final time at the figure on the pilgrim’s route on the hill. A lamb stood on the earth at its feet and a kite soared in the heavens. Perhaps we are all pilgrims, seeking a goal of which we have heard but have yet to see. It seemed a fitting image as we headed back to the car for the next stage of our journey.
Fish, Chips and Cormorants
We were starting to get hungry by the time we arrived at our hotel in Lampeter, a small university town in mid-Wales that deserved more attention than we had time to give it. Personally, I blame the football. The trouble was, it was the European Championships and we arrived as the match was starting. And Wales were playing England… so the pub was packed, noisy and every TV was surrounded by a crowd of supporters. Food, we were told, was off the menu until after the match and inevitable post-mortem period.
That was okay… a brief discussion revealed that we both rather fancied fish and chips… and the best place to get them is always beside the sea. I hadn’t seen the sea for a while… and it wasn’t all that far. Unless you take the wrong road, or miss a turning because you are talking… but even then, driving through beautiful countryside to find an alternative route is no hardship. And it was worth the drive… the sea was beautiful in the late afternoon sunshine.
The sky seemed to laugh at any thought of the torrential rain we’d had for half the day and the sea was an inviting blue… but, we really were hungry by that time and the little seaside town of Aberaeron, with its inlet and pretty, multicoloured houses, was bound to have what we fancied. Fish, chips, mushy peas and a pot of tea for two… it doesn’t get much better than that.
Satiated, we sat for a while by the estuary in the evening sun, watching the seagulls… and a cormorant who was also having fish for dinner. It was amazing to watch its mastery of air and water as it dived, resurfacing a huge distance away, over and over. They are incomparable fishers and have always fascinated me.
I remember being told about them as a child and how Chinese fishermen trained them to hunt fish for them with rings around their throats so that the birds could only swallow the smaller fish. Cormorant fishing is slowly dying in China, but seeing the birds pleasing only themselves was wonderful.
Another flew in and we watched them fish for a while, enjoying the unusual spectacle and our surroundings. The warmth was nice too after the rain and we strolled through the rainbow-hued town, finally heading back towards the sea. The shadows were drawing in and the dark clouds were gathering once more.
“Avert your eyes,” said my companion. Upon which, I immediately looked… well, you would, wouldn’t you? And just as immediately regretted it. Two fully dressed and decidedly merry young men were frolicking in the waves. By fully dressed, I mean merely that their apparel was still vaguely attached to their anatomy, but not necessarily in the right places or with any attempt at modesty. I averted my eyes. Whether they were celebrating or drowning their sorrows, it was a little hard to say. Personally… I blame the football… But at least I had seen the sea.
We had watched the swallows in the hotel car-park, marvelling at their mastery of the air and swift, graceful flight and delighting in the first, tentative flutters as the baby swallows left the nest for the first time. We have had some beautiful encounters with swallows, but this was special. You could feel the excitement as the babies tumbled gracelessly from their perch, expecting to emulate their parents and finding they had no idea what to do with their wings. They came to land in the most inappropriate places and I had been down and ushered one of the stranded babies out of the path of the cars.
One crash-landed on the little balcony outside the window and we watched, with some concern, its refusal to move at all. Still, it was a rare and beautiful thing to watch through a crack in the curtains as the parent birds flew in, hovering and flapping their wings, encouraging and demonstrating to the tiny creature just what it needed to do.
Night drew in and the baby was still there, away from its nest in the chill rain. I fretted, knowing that the parent birds were still caring for their chick, so there was nothing I could do but let Nature handle it. She has more experience than I where baby swallows are concerned. Even so, sleep was a long time coming.
Next morning, the first thing I did was peep through the curtains. It hadn’t moved. But it was no longer alone… one of its nest-mates had joined it and the pair of them huddled close in the pale light. Checking, every few minutes, I saw the parent bird return and try again to get them to flap their wings. Still nothing from the chicks, though now they were both perched on the edge of the balcony.
I took one of the bags down to the car and, as I returned, was treated to a sight that lifted the heart… I saw the babies fly. A faltering, clumsy flight… not very far… but soon they realised that they had no need to fear, only to do what they were born to do… embrace their gifts and be swallows.
By the time we had broken our fast, the little family was playing in the air. You could tell the juveniles by their flight. Where the parents swooped, sailed and soared in controlled arcs, the babies dive-bombed, rose vertically and tried their wings to the limit like tiny aerobats. It was utterly joyful to watch them play and brought a lump to my throat. This was bliss… you could just tell how proud of themselves they were. And they had made it.
Except, they hadn’t, not all of them. Beside the car, a tiny body lay, still with the yellow beak of babyhood. It did not need for the rain-soaked feathers to tell us that this little one had failed to fly… you can tell when life has left the body; the lights go out. Nature can seem cruel to our human hearts and emotions, but what is a swallow without flight? We had watched over his siblings as they were so frozen by fear that they had to endure the cold, lonely night. We had watched too as they faced their fears, embraced their true nature and found their destiny in the summer skies. Yet, we, for all our perceived dominance as a species, could not save a tiny swallow from its fate.
The little swallow had much to teach and, as we turned the car south towards our weekend rendezvous, I wondered how many of us are so frozen by our fear of embracing our true nature that we immure ourselves within greater and more complex fears? How many of us, encouraged by the belief of others, yet refuse to spread our wings? And how many die inside, too afraid to take flight into a beauty that is theirs alone? These tiny souls had taught me a lesson as they brought their own beauty into the skies.
Back in Time
“This is for kids.” I detected a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Granted, the site has been made into an educational experience, but the fact remains that Castell Henllys is a real archaeological site and quite unique, for while it was being dug, it was also being reconstructed.
“And?” Children we are, there are some things you are never too old for, regardless of years. It is a place where the imagination can step outside of time and range back over two thousand years and beyond to a moment when legends were born.
The hillfort, once home to members of the Demetae tribe, sits high on a rocky outcrop, a little way inland from the coast and would have been a superb lookout point as well as making the site easily defensible. I had been there once before and there was just something about the place that had stayed in memory. If I wanted to be thought any weirder than usual, I’d say it felt a bit like coming home. It was familiar in a way that is difficult to explain… an instance of genetic or far memory, perhaps.
The hillfort is hidden in the trees. Wild herbs, watercress and wild garlic still grow here, giving a clue to what those who called it home, some two thousand years ago, might have been able to find in the wooded slopes.
A wicker fish trap lies beside the stream, birds and herbs are plentiful and supplemented by a tended herb garden… and anyway, there was a robin. We always get a robin when we are in the right place. And it had a totem pole…
It also had pigs, the old fashioned kind that would have been familiar to our ancestors. Two of them, rooting around in the earth, tilling it with their noses, oblivious to the watchers and the robin, which seemed to be following us.
The sheep took a little more notice. Their wool a rich, russet brown, very different from the blanched, deceptively docile affairs we normally see in our fields and on the hills. These looked as if they meant business.
So did the cheveaux de frise… lines of sharp, defensive flints and rocks, their points angled to cause both difficulty and damage to anyone wishing to attack the settlement.
The official view is that the hillfort itself would have housed only the elite of the tribe… the chieftain and his family, the warriors and the shaman perhaps… and the craftsmen such as the smith, a magical profession that could extract the new and precious ore from stone to craft tools and weapons. The majority would have lived in the settlement beneath the hill in times of peace, supplying those above with what was needful in return for their guidance and protection; a very similar set-up to the Norman motte and bailey castles a thousand years later.
It is an imposing place, even today. Ringed with earthworks and the steep slope of the hill, it has a presence and a solidity that brings the stuff of fantasy into the moment. Stepping through the antlered gate, you step back into history…
Into the Past
As you walk through the antlered gate of the hillfort at Castell Henllys you are stepping back into the past. This is no mere historical curiosity, nor ‘just’ an educational museum… it is a real and ancient settlement, painstakingly recreated and brought once more to vivid life.
There are posts marking some of the placements where the supporting frames of the roundhouses were found during excavations. There are places where you can go and see the stone footings of similar buildings. Indeed, we would see some that very afternoon. But here, there are not just posts. There are roundhouses.
Over a period of twenty six years, archaeologists explored the site. The roundhouses are built on the original foundations of the Iron Age settlement, standing exactly where they would have stood over two thousand years ago. The site provides a time machine for us to see how our ancestors lived. For the archaeologists, it is something more… a unique opportunity to study the practical issues of living in such a settlement; to see how things would have had to be constructed… and learn how they worked.
The first to be built was the Old Roundhouse, constructed over twenty years ago and now the oldest such reconstruction standing in the country. Its thatch has been patched and repaired, but even with the strictness of current health and safety measures, it has stood the test of time. It was this that I remembered from my earlier visit some years ago. It had left a lasting impression on me and I was glad to smell the woodsmoke and see the distinctive grey plumes still rising from its roof.
There is no hole in the roof above the central hearth as most of us were taught. I always wondered how that would work in a rain-drenched land. Inside, the pall of smoke hovers always just above head height, filling the roof timbers and blackening the thatch… and, incidentally, protecting them against woodworm and other invasive insects. The smoke is a natural insect repellent and that observation astonished archaeologists… the technologies our ancestors used were not at all primitive and although many survive only as scraps of archaeology, the experts have been able to work backwards to recreate them in a way that is now proven to work.
The beaten earth of the floor remains dry, the steeply sloping pitch of the roof shields the wattle and daub walls and footings from the worst weather. The central fire, that would have been kept burning all year round, day and night, provides light and heat and cooking space… as well as a place to gather around the flames to discuss the running of the tribe, or simply while away the long winter evenings with teaching tales, stories of mythical heroes and magical beasts.
One of the roundhouses is a granary, where goods and grain were stored. Standing near the centre of the clearing and smaller than the rest, it is floored with a raised platform to ensure a good circulation of air and help keep the supplies away from damp earth and its inhabitants.
Tools and weapons, places to practice the arts of war and the hunt make you feel the inhabitants have just stepped away and might return at any moment.
A bodger’s lathe waits silently for the craftsman to reappear…
… and the willow waits to be bent and shaped into baskets, fish-traps and decorative ornaments. You can almost hear the gossip of the women and the laughter of children…
The smith’s house is set apart. They were magic-makers, revered for their skill in drawing metal from stone… a new technology and one viewed with awe. Did the village have their own smith? Or was he one of those who walked the land, bringing his gift to may places. He would have been honoured everywhere… like the druids who brought lore and law, teaching and mystery wherever they wandered.
The looms, like the smithy, are silent, but the cloth is half woven. The colours of the wool bright and fresh… colours of earth, made from the plants that grow around the hill. Our ancestors loved colour and wove intricate and beautiful plaids and patterns from the wool the women spun into fine threads, twirling their weighted spindles with the skill of long practice.
These were our ancestors. By our standards, a hard life perhaps, yet by their own it was simply the life they knew. Children learned early to work with and for the community. Many things were shared; skills were valued and traded both within the settlement and with the greater community. It was not all work though… there was time to see beauty and fashion its likeness in wood, stone, metal and paint.
There was time and a need to know how to work with the land and with the natural world, not against it. For the chieftain and his warriors, there was comfort and a splendour that was practical as well as beautiful in the lofty hall.
But if the structural and artistic design, and the scope of the technologies they were using is surprising, then the atmosphere is magical. The sharp incense of woodsmoke is everywhere. Flame-shadows dance, bringing to life the painted creatures that circle the walls. The warmth and sense of shelter is very real, even on a chill and overcast morning when the grass is still sodden from torrents of rain. We sat on the wooden benches, our backs against the trunks of trees and time stood still for us, erasing the centuries and the rush of the modern world. We were long ago and far away, catching the whispers of ancient storytellers who held their people spellbound and watching visions form in the flames…
A Field of Peace
We gathered by Whitesands beach, just outside St David’s in Pembrokeshire… a small group of people from all walks of life, putting aside the cares and pressures of the daily grind to explore the sacred landscape of Wales. A time out of time. A weekend is too short to see enough of anywhere… and an area such as this, so rich in natural beauty, history and legend deserves all the time you can give. We had only the weekend, but our guide and Companion had carefully planned the days to share as much as she could of a place that is very dear to her heart.
For myself, the time in such a landscape was much needed. It had been a busy several weeks. Ever since the April workshop in Derbyshire it seemed as if I had been on my feet or cursing them, especially after the incident with the spider bites. With an unexpectedly rapid house move thrown in for good measure, I was wound up tight and the healing of stone, sun and sea was a balm that I craved.
Few places could have been better than where we began the weekend. A curve of pale sand nestles between limestone cliffs and is bounded by the bluest sea and a profusion of wildflowers. Carn Llidi rises against the azure sky; its name may mean either the ‘Cairn of Wrath’ or the ‘Cairn of the Gates’. The former may refer to the storms that can batter this headland, but I prefer the idea of the Gates. Walking in its shadow we began a journey through the ancient past.
The first living field of wildflowers that we crossed hides a secret. This place was once the site of a chapel dedicated to St Patrick, as it is told that it was from here at Porth Mawr that the saint took ship for Ireland some fifteen hundred years ago, after being granted a vision. The chapel was already in ruins four hundred years ago and only a small mound now marks where it once stood.
Many stories are told of the place… how the patron saint of Wales, St David, studied with St Paulinus at the monastery… now a white farmhouse called Ty Gwyn (which means ‘White House’) just above the beach. St Non, David’s mother, is thought to have lived there too when it was still a religious community and may have been educated by Maucan, who, in his turn, had learned at the feet of St Patrick. Pilgrims gathered here before crossing the bay to the great cathedral of St David’s… and I have to wonder whether the ‘white’ of the names refers to the pale sand… or to some inner ‘whiteness’, the purity of a place that has long been held sacred.
Beneath the flowers is a burial ground. Storms have exposed the remains of the people who lived here centuries ago, some of whom may have known St Patrick himself. Archaeologists have moved to protect and preserve the site and around fifty skeletons were excavated during a recent dig… just a small part of the community that was buried here over several hundred years. The burials were unusual for their time as many people were laid in stone-lined cysts. One held a small, standing stone cross, the first ever found in Britain in a long cyst grave.
More poignant though are the graves of the children; buried amid such beauty, their parents laid them to rest with layers of quartz crystal and shells. Were they simply gifts, given in love to go with them on their soul’s journey? Or was there some deeper mystery that we have forgotten? We may never know. Much is lost beneath the sands…
This is a place of peace and beauty in summer… a harsh and storm-torn land in winter, yet through it all, it survives, ever changing, its beauty reborn with the touch of the sun. It has been here longer than mankind, yet our story is deeply etched on the land. Beneath the waves and visible at the lowest tides is an ancient forest where hunters sought the auroch, deer and bear. A community that spanned the centuries sleeps beneath the flowers, and in the concrete car park, modern history is remembered with a plaque and a propeller, commemorating a Marauder that crashed there, killing its four-man crew at the end of WWII.
This place of peace was home to Halifax bombers, several of which were lost in combat… yet it has also been a place of saints. Even so, the hand of Man, with all his contrasts and conflicts seems but a little thing beside the beauty of Creation, yet perhaps it is because of such small contrasts that we are able to appreciate the greater whole. We see best where there is both light and dark.
St David’s Head
It is a beautiful walk along the cliffs towards St David’s Head. The land is covered in an incredible variety of wildflowers, from the pink pompoms of thrift to the tall spires of foxgloves. The starry flowers of sedum nestle in every nook and cranny and little spotted orchids drift through the short, sturdy grass. It is a gardener’s paradise, especially on a glorious summer afternoon.
The sea was a changing palette of blue and turquoise, clear as glass and sparkling in the sunlight. I am a northern lass and the shores of my home county wear grey like a faded memory. Where I now live, the sea is simply too far away, so for me the day was a delight. Even the rocks wear the ochres and green of lichen; colour is everywhere. It does the heart good just to be in such a landscape, as if Nature responds to need with her entire armoury and a refusal to let the grey pall of the workaday world remain. You cannot help but be present in face of such beauty.
The area is rich in wildlife too, both on land and in the sea and sky. Gulls fly above and below as you walk the cliff path, wild Welsh ponies graze on the hillside and there are often seals and porpoises in the bay. I have seen seals here before, but sadly, no amount of looking would reveal them this time.
As if the land, sky and sea were not enough, there is a wealth of history too. It is impossible to say when mankind first came to this rocky headland. It was already known when Ptolemy wrote his Geography nearly two thousand years ago in Alexandria and, as his book was based upon the even earlier writings of Maucan, it may have been known long before Ptolemy’s time. The Geography calls the place the ‘Promontory of the Eight Perils’ an intriguing name that makes you wonder just what the ancient ones were doing in this landscape.
The area is rich in archaeology. The first really visible site we encountered were the stone foundations of hut circles… and suddenly we had slipped back in time thousands of years. The tip of the promontory is an ancient stronghold known as Warrior’s Dyke, bounded on the landward side by what remains of a ditch and rubble bank and the natural stone outcrop. What is left today might easily be missed, blending into the boulder strewn landscape, but once the stone and earth fortifications were over two hundred feet long and over eighty feet high. The hut circles are part of this ancient settlement, built in a place that had long held importance in the minds and hearts of men.
There are cairns and prehistoric walls, earthworks and tombs… everywhere we looked there was something that needed exploring. It would need much longer than a day to do it justice. It was overwhelming. We sat on the tip of the rocks for a long time, just watching the light on the water and listening to the poetry recited by one of our Companions. We ask that those who join us on such weekends bring a short reading of some kind, to be read… or not… when and if the moment feels right. The time we spent on the uttermost edge of the land, where sky and sea meet stone, was a perfect moment and ended, as such moments often do, in laughter.
There was still much to see though going back even further in time and, with some reluctance, we turned inland, following the cliff-top path, back towards the slopes of Carn Llidi, watching the changing outline of the hill against the sky. There is a ‘feel’ about such places. It is somehow easy to attune to the land and its people, even those long gone whose lives we understand but little and whose culture and technology raise so many questions. All it takes is an openness to the moment and a stilling of the mind that, in our busy world, is always tense and alert to the demands of our own social and cultural interactions.
We were stepping away from those demands for a little while, just a small group of travellers sharing a path and we were heading for a place that marks a journey that is common to us all…
Arthur’s Quoit came as something of a surprise. The huge neolithic tomb rises from the plateau behind St David’s Head, the angle and ridge on the capstone seeming to shadow the lines of Carn Llidi beyond. The capstone is around twenty feet long and over eight feet wide, supported by a single orthostat that holds the point of the stone around five feet from the ground. At first glance, you assume that somewhere during its five thousand year history, the other two orthostats that would have supported it must have fallen and the earthen mound that covered it been eroded away. There are many such places where this has happened.
A closer look, though, makes you question that assumption. It is true that there are stones strewn broken on the ground that could have been supporting stones… but the whole thing looks right, just as it is in this place. The contours of the capstone emulate the shape of the hill above far too well for it to be accidental. If the stone were raised on other supports, the visual similarity in form would be lost and we have seen this ‘shadowing’ of the landscape too often to ignore its importance.
The oddest thing, though, is that the shadowing effect seems even more pronounced from inside the tomb. It is not the first time we have seen such ancient places arranged more for the vision of the dead than of the living. Knowing that the ancestors and their bones played such an important role in the life of the clans, perhaps this is not surprising. Were the tombs really places to bury the dead, hiding them from view… or places that were portals between the realms of life and death, gateways to an Otherworld that mirrors our own? Or perhaps they were places of initiation, where the gates of both life and death were symbolically opened?
Later research seems to confirm that Coetan Arthur was one of a small number of earthfast tombs, where one end of the capstone touches the earth and no covering mound was built. The stones that surround the tomb could potentially have been used to seal the sides of the inner space and there are traces nearby of a barrow too. In fact, the whole area is littered with stones that seem to demand a closer look and a second visit.
We seldom do research before we visit a site, preferring to ‘feel’ our way. It may seem an odd way of working, but it serves us well. Not only do we get the excitement of discovery every time, but we come without preconceived ideas and can find our own interpretations, uncluttered by the ‘official’ version. Whether or not we are right is always a matter for speculation, but then, the official version shares that same fate, even though it may be better informed at a factual level.
Apart from anything else, the official version only looks at recognised archaeology… it takes little account of the spirit of the place, the hotly debated alignments or the natural formations which, if they are striking to our modern eyes, would have been neither missed nor ignored by the Old Ones who were so much more attuned to the land than we are today.
So we explore, speculate, document and take hundreds of pictures… though usually find we have missed ‘that’ shot. Practice hones awareness; details we would once have missed, we now look for and, though it sounds fanciful, the land speaks to us in ways we could not have dreamed when we began this journey so long ago.
Our research is done once we are home and have talked through our impressions, looked at the pictures once more and played around with the symbolic ideas we have seen made visible in earth, wood and stone. The down-side to this approach is that we may miss things we would have liked to see… which means going back again for a second or third visit. This can be awkward when the sites are so far-flung across the land… but it is a fabulous excuse for returning to a place when we know that real understanding seldom comes from a first encounter.
As we walked towards Carn Llidi, we were surprised to see a little herd of Welsh ponies grazing on the hillside. These hardy and resilient ponies still live a semi-feral life here. They are beautiful creatures and very much a part of the land and its history, having ploughed its fields, carried its warriors and worked in its mines for centuries. It is known that there have been ponies here for well over three and a half thousand years and who knows how much longer before that. At some point in their long history, they were bred with Arabian horses and that bloodline too runs in their veins. I knew of the wild ponies of Snowdonia, a genetically unique group that was decimated in recent years by severe winter weather that wiped out almost half the population, but had not expected to see them at St David’s Head.
I remember seeing the news story when the last pit ponies were brought up from the mines. Smaller breeds, like Shetlands and the Welsh ponies were preferred as they could go where even mechanisation could not, each hauling thirty tons of coal a day in eight-hour shifts. Ponies were used in the mines from 1750, and the last pit pony was retired only in 1999. I remember too my great-uncle’s stories of them and how they worked underground for years, though some were brought up for a short holiday annually when the mines closed. When they came out into the sunlight, they could not see… after so long in the dark it took them some time to adjust to the daylight. The ponies would be taken underground at four years old and could work, if they survived, until their twenties. In deep shaft mines, they were stabled in the mine itself and cared for by the miners as well as their owners. The management were looking after an asset… the miners for a fellow worker who shared both their labour and the danger. Even in modern times, coal mining was deadly work and there were many stories of how the ponies’ sense of danger helped save their human partners.
My great-uncle took me to meet some of the ponies one day during their annual break. He taught me, a small girl then, how to hold out the apples and the mints that they loved without risking my fingers. To see them grazing, wild in the heather, is a very different thing from seeing their coal-stained coats that no amount of grooming could clean… just like my uncle’s hands. Those, I remember well, large, shapely hands, calloused and strong, yet always tinged with black. The coal dust killed him in the end… a lifetime of breathing it unprotected, just as it must have affected so many of the ponies. It was an unnatural life, away from the fresh air and sunlight, away from the green… and a joy to see them free on the hillside as we climbed.
The ponies were not the only wild beauties there. The exuberance of summer wildflowers alone was quite something to see. Many of them grow low to the ground in response to the coastal wind and weather… you do not see them from afar, but honeysuckle and wild rose ramble through the gorse and bracken. Tall spires of foxglove stand proud above the greenery and with every step new flowers turned multicoloured faces to the sun.
The sun was really beating down and we were all glad when the path reached its crest and began to descend ahead of us. We were hot and tired… we had all driven a long way that day… and, not realising how hot it would get or the scope of the landscape, few of us had brought water. At a fork in the path, we should have ascended further, climbing Carn Llidi to the WWII gun emplacements and the twin chambered tombs on the slopes of the hill before climbing to the top. With some regret, we went down instead… all but one of us, who climbed the hill alone. Much as I would have liked to see the tombs, my feet… clad, for once, in sensible walking shoes… were painfully protesting the heat and the abuse of the previous weeks. The shoes had to go… but first, we had to get down.
The stone walls between which we walked were covered in flowers, bees and butterflies. Birds sang everywhere, but none as loudly as a tiny virtuoso perched on a thorn bush. I didn’t recognise him.. though I thought he was a warbler of some sort. I wondered if he might be one of the few remaining marsh warblers, famed for their song… he certainly deserved to be, both in volume and virtuosity. You would not believe that such a tiny thing could sing so loudly.
It was both wonderful and shocking to realise this might have been a marsh warbler. I am no expert on birds… but he looked rather like one when I tried to identify him later. If he was, then to see and hear him was even more of a privilege as there are thought to be only six or eight breeding pairs left in the UK and the little birds are on the red list for conservation.
There were other birds too though…many of them just youngsters, newly fledged and wearing their juvenile colours. Like the young robin that frequents my garden, you cannot tell what they are at first glance… their feathers do not yet identify them and you have to see how they walk and how they hold themselves to know what they are.
We expect a robin to have a red breast and a blackbird to be black. When they are not, we puzzle for a while to know what it is that we see. Expectations and appearances can blind us to reality, so we have to reach beyond them before we can see and know what is real.
We finally made it down after a superb afternoon in the loveliest of places. Soon we would all gather for dinner in St David’s itself, but for the moment, there was a cool breeze and the shimmer of sunlight on the sea. The shoes and socks were off… the trousers rolled and we let the clear waters wash away the heat from aching feet, leaving behind only the balm and memory of beauty.
The jaws had dropped, the expletives had escaped and the cameras were out almost as soon as we exited the car. Even from a distance, Carreg Samson was spectacular, set against the backdrop of the coast… a smiling dragon resting his maw on folded wings as if he was casually looking over the cliff top at the approaching party. We should have expected dragons in Wales, but we could never have expected this.
Even at close quarters, the resemblance remained. We had dutifully noted that, from the correct approach, the contours of the great head seemed to shadow the shape of the headland beyond. The location alone is stunning and the stones are simply enormous. The capstone is over fifteen feet long, nearly nine feet wide and over three feet thick. There is plenty of headroom to stand beneath it. When you consider that the legends say that St Samson lifted the capstone into position with his little finger, you can only imagine that the Welsh saint had been well named… and a giant.
Whether through soil subsidence over the five thousand years since it was built or, more likely by design, the capstone is only supported by three of the six remaining orthostats. The stones are different in colour and texture, the supporting stones rich with veins of quartz… and stone was the technology and the artistry of the builders, I doubt that they would make such choices without reason. There are several outliers still half hidden in the grass.
Excavations showed that there were once four more stones… one support and three that may have formed a passage into the tomb from the southeast. They also found that the tomb was built over a deep, rubble-filled pit. Burnt bone, sherds of pottery and worked flints were also found. Like Coetan Arthur, there is debate over whether or not this tomb ever wore an earthen mound. Be that as it may, at some point in its history, local shepherds had used loose stone to block the gaps in the walls and had used the tomb as a sheep shelter. I wonder what the dragon had thought about that… I have never imagined dragons as herbivores. Even from the other side, the head neck and serene smile are visible.
We gathered in the chamber of a place once held sacred by our ancestors and, for the first time, shared a version of the Gorsedd Prayer, composed by Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826), that has been adopted by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids:
Grant, O God, Thy protection;
And in protection, strength;
And in strength, understanding;
And in understanding, knowledge;
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it;
And in that love, the love of all life;
And in the love of all life, the love of God.
God and all goodness.
It mattered not at all by what name or with what vision we each turned our thoughts to the One. We stood on sacred ground, though the names and faces of its gods are lost beyond time. Both faith and belief are personal, unique to each individual, regardless of any religious affiliation. Every prayer that is offered, in praise, thanks or supplication, flies on its own wings.
With the cameras and the laughter, a casual observer could have been forgiven for putting us down as a just another group of tourists. There is no need for robes, arcane symbols or chanting… okay, sometimes we chant. And wear robes. And symbolism is everywhere anyway. But the heart of a spiritual weekend is in the sacred intent of those who are gathered, not in its outward expression or in pseudo-spiritual posturing. It is not by the overt and visible form that the inner intent can be measured, nor can it be dismissed as absent when it is veiled by mundane normality. In the quiet spaces between breaths, when a few come together and turn their thoughts to the One, sometimes that intent can be seen, just for a moment, as beautiful and as tangible as a flower.
Carreg Coetan Arthur
This was the third dolmen we had visited in three days whose name tied it to the legendary King Arthur… and three times three is a magical number. It is certainly a magical site and quite unexpected as you walk between the gaily painted bungalows of the little coastal town of Newport. A gate opens into a green oasis, bounded and shadowed by high hedges, cool in the midday sun, where you come face to face with the oddest little dolmen. My first thought was just as odd… that it reminded me of Ani, the way she sits with the front paws together, demure and expectant, yet somehow regal and ready to pounce in joyous abandon… there was that kind of ‘feel’ to the place. Very much alive.
Like most of these sites that were once houses of the dead, the overriding impression is not one of melancholy, but of warmth and gladness. You can understand it on a bright, summer’s day, but I don’t know why it should be so in the depths of winter or in pouring rain… yet so it is. There is no sense of the macabre in walking where the bones of our ancestors once lay, no sadness or ghoulish tremor; just a sense of gentle peace and reverence, which says more about our ancestors’ attitude to death, perhaps, than anything we might deduce from the formal study of the past. It is as if they already knew that Life cannot die… only the forms that hold it for a short while can fade and pass, returning their elements to the earth to fuel the cycle of becoming.
We don’t really know how old these sites are. The scientific process of dating them takes into account both the style and method of construction, comparing them to other dated sites, along with any artefacts that are found during excavation. Anything that can be used for radiocarbon dating, or one of the other modern methods, is a bonus. Even so, such methods can only tell when the artefact dates from, not the site itself, unless its position allows archaeologists to deduce that the find must have been in place before a site was built over it. There have been finds of bone, Grooved and Beaker ware on a platform beside the cromlech and there are other, smaller boulders half buried, part of an unknown construction. Carreg Coetan Arthur has been dated to around four thousand and seven hundred years old. The nature of the finds suggest that bodies were never buried here, but that only defleshed bones were brought to the site.
We call them tombs, yet I have to wonder if our modern definition really fits the use for which they were designed. That bones were laid in such places, there is no doubt… many have been found, mainly longbones and skulls, neatly arranged by type rather than by person. The bones of many individuals, over decades and centuries, laid in places that seem also to have been used for the rituals that sustain life. To the modern mind, life and death are to be kept separate and our tombs are a place to bury the past, not include it in our celebrations. I prefer the older view, that recognises what has gone before as a necessary part of what is.
The first impression of the cromlech is that it is small compared to many others, but that is due rather to the design than the stones themselves. The capstone, deep and bulky, is over thirteen feet long and even now I could walk underneath it. The internal space was once much higher. Centuries of local ploughing raised the ground level considerably and the uprights would have once stood around three feet higher than they do today, creating a tall and elegant form. Even so, to see the great capstone poised upon the uprights is impressive enough. Especially when, on closer inspection, you realise that it is not balanced upon the four uprights at all… but is held, incredibly, upon the points of only two.
The two supporting orthostats sit beautifully into deliberately hollowed niches in the capstone. Can you imagine the mastery required to enable such a weight of stone to be so perfectly balanced? The surrounding countryside is now largely obscured by modern buildings, but the contours of the capstone are said to shadow the contours of nearby Mynydd Carningli, which we were set to climb that afternoon. Not only that, but the site marks the point from which some interesting and precise solar and lunar alignments have been noted, for both midwinter and midsummer. Such precision cannot be accidental and suggests a sophistication in the observation and reproduction of cosmic cycles that we recognise in the superlative artistry of Egypt yet often overlook in the earthier but powerful presence of stone in our own landscape.
For the second time we gathered beneath the capstone to share the words of the Gorsedd Prayer, honouring what has gone before, what is and what is yet to come. The human story is but a drop in the ocean of universal time, but it is our story, from beginning to end and the further back we reach through our history, the more we see the commonalities, rather than the differences and barriers we have created between ourselves. Perhaps by looking into the past, we may learn how to face our future.
Our little convoy left the ancient site playing follow-the-leader on the narrow roads. The car in front of me had instructions, in case we lost the lead car, on how to get to the car park for a quick comfort break before the next stop of the weekend. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for a start there was the traffic that separated the party. Then a sign for a car park saved the day. Except, when we nearly got there, it didn’t seem to match the instructions. Off we all went looking for the right car park… to no avail. So we went back to the first one. Which was nice and had the necessary facilities, besides being right on the beach…
We tried calling, but there was no answer. We decided that the best course of action would be to stay put and wait for rescue. A decision not in the least bit influenced by the beautiful location… or the jam-and-cream scones with large pots of tea with which we were fortifying ourselves when our guide arrived. We must have looked like naughty children when she found us… the look on her face is one my own has worn all too often when catching my sons in mischief. I’m not at all sure she was convinced of our innocence… and faced with a table full of scones and clotted cream, I can’t say I blame her. I’m not sure I would have believed us either.
Still, I was glad to see a little more of the place, if only accidentally. There are some beautiful old buildings in Newport, including parts of the Norman castle and a church of the same date with some interesting stained glass that there would be no time to visit on this trip at least. There are the earthworks and trenches of an Iron Age fort, built on a prehistoric site that dates back some nine thousand years to the mesolithic area, as well as more recent history, such as the disused lime kilns beside the car park of the little port where we had found ourselves.
That is the only problem with running a weekend workshop… inevitably you end up missing so many things in an area. Time only allows you so much leeway and choices must be made about where to go and what to do… and yet you still have to leave space for spirit, time to just be in the landscape… and for such eventualities as accidental cream teas. The places we had seen and were yet to see were perfectly chosen and all places we really wanted to see. Still, it does give us an excuse to go back… not that we are likely to need one. Wales is a beautiful country and rich in history and ancient sites.
Even the land itself would be reason enough to return. Somehow, you can feel both its age and its life. Watched by the creature that seemed to smile on us from the headland, we all took directions from our guide and set off for the short drive to our next stop. We needn’t have worried… ‘up’ was the only direction we really needed. We had a hill to climb…
Walking with Angels
We didn’t have to climb the whole height of the mountain; there is a makeshift car park about halfway up. I was glad of that, as my poor, much abused feet were not happy. I spend much of my life barefoot, the soles of my feet offer better protection than most of my shoes these days and anyway, I like to feel the earth beneath my feet. Left to my own devices, I would have walked in the flimsy lace slippers that allow them to breathe and expand, but common sense demanded the walking shoes be worn. It would be a long way to carry an idiot with a twisted ankle back down the mountain and we had been warned of a scramble over loose scree at the top.
Walking shoes come into their own in rain and winter weather, or when crossing the boggy stretches of moorland born of upland springs that bar your way, even when it hasn’t rained for weeks. Their soles are thick and rigid with excellent grip, their uppers breathable, their construction protective and waterproof and they hug the feet securely. They are faultless and comfortable… except when it is already hot and said feet are gasping for air and threatening to go on all-out strike if not given worker’s rights.
Just to add insult to injury, as soon as my feet overheat at present, the pain and the itching of the spider bites return. Consequently, my ascent of the mountain was slow, punctuated by muttered expletives and lacked the grace of the supercilious sheep and the ponies that watched our progress. They, I noted, had surrendered to the heat of the day and were comfortably lying on the grass.
It is one of the inevitabilities of the ageing process that the body starts to impose limitations long before the inner self has begun to slow down. I am not sure that we ever have to leave our youthful eagerness and joy in life behind… but the consequences of the lives we have lived etch themselves on muscle and bone. Growing older is a privilege that should be appreciated for the gift it is… and one we would probably appreciate more often if it didn’t hurt so much.
Sometimes, though, a slower pace is not such a bad thing. A leisurely stroll with frequent stops gives plenty of time to observe the land and its creatures, and this landscape was certainly worth more time than we would have. You could probably spend a lifetime on the mountain and still not learn all its secrets. Sometimes, too, that slower pace has unseen reasons that shadow forth a purpose other than our own. Without the aching feet, I would have missed something that will remain with me for a very long time.
St Brynach, a local saint of the 6thC, is said to have climbed Mynydd Carningli many times, when the busy life at the monastery he founded in Nevern became too much for him. He would walk to the summit to pray in the silence, surrounded by the beauty of his God’s Creation and ‘commune with the angels’.
Mynydd Carningli, the ‘Hill of the Angels’, is an ancient volcano that rises some 1,138 feet above the sea and its origins are written in its stone. It is part of the Prescelli range of hills from which the famous Bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried and carried some hundred and forty miles to their home at the heart of the Hanging Stones. It appears to have been a sacred place for much of mankind’s history and is rich in archaeology. There would be no time to explore the massive hillfort that crowns the mountain and which goes back to the Bronze Age, or to go searching for the hut circles, gateways and revetments that make this such a fascinating, as well as such a beautiful place. We were climbing for other reasons.
I wasn’t the only one struggling with the ascent that day. The fittest amongst us were way ahead of us, stopping occasionally to allow us to catch up for a while. The laggard group fell further and further behind and one of our Companions, already beyond his usual limits, started looking for another path back down.
I could sympathise, but was determined to make the top. Our guide for the weekend was taking us to places that spoke to her heart and soul in words of silent beauty. They meant something to her, far beyond their undoubted historical or aesthetic value. In sharing them with us, she was opening a door through which we could see a glimmer of her own inner light. That level of trust a thing of great beauty in itself.
And there was another reason too… we planned on a sharing a healing meditation there for a much-loved friend whose health was giving cause for concern. I voiced this, as much to affirm my own determination as for any other reason and witnessed what was, for me, the most singularly beautiful moment of the whole weekend. “I needed to hear that right now,” said our weary Companion, straightening his back and striding on up the mountain. What he might not have attempted for himself he would do for Love.
You have to climb to reach any summit, just as you have to travel to reach any destination. That journey is not only part of the experience, but gives value to its attainment. Stuart has a theory that the effort of the ascent is the willing sacrifice we make when we climb these sacred hills and what may be granted in return is exponential to the offering of self that you have made. Watching that determined back precede me up the mountain is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It is in such moments that you glimpse the true strength and beauty of the human heart and soul.
It is a magical place. You are in no doubt of that as you walk along the path to the site. Hoary stones nestle in the hedgerow. Bluebells, those delicate woodland flowers that bloom only in spring, are blooming on the hillside at midsummer, scattered through the grass as if giving warning that here, time holds no sway and to step into the enclosure is to step out of this world’s realm and into another.
Your first sight of Pentre Ifan takes your breath away. I saw it first many years ago, on a day that invited no other visitors… we had the place to ourselves for hours and time to get a feel for this sacred space. And, although many things here may be debated and pondered upon by minds scientific or spiritually inclined, there is no doubt about the sanctity of the site.
It is the gigantic head of a bird that greets you, its beak held aloft by stone as insubstantial as a feather, looking out over the valley. It is not just the stones that ‘get’ you, it is the place itself. Little wonder, when there are so many tales of the Fair Folk being sighted here, especially as the moon rises on a summer night.
Some tales tell that they are red-capped and resemble small soldiers. Others, less forthcoming but more believable, speak of insubstantial beings, impossible to capture but who converse with those rare few who can see them.
Pentre Ifan was built around six thousand years ago and is the oldest of the tombs we visited on this trip. The site sits within its enclosure still; even though the perimeter stones are largely lost within the edges of the oak wood and the hedgerows, the shape of the space can still be traced. There are all the usual debates over the purpose and construction of the site, but it is always referred to as a tomb. Here, I can see that, though not because of the archaeology. Very few artefacts have been discovered here and no finds to show that it was ever a burial chamber, which, in itself, seems a little odd for a tomb. I wonder if the stones were part of the death rites, rather than a final resting place? Or perhaps the death was more symbolic… a ritual initiation… a re-beginning for the shamans.
One legend about the place says that it was a druidic college. Pentre Ifan was not always its name either… it was once known as Arthur’s Quoit, Coetan Arthur, like the first site we had visited. But Arthur, as a legend, is a mere babe compared to the age of these stones, and I wonder why the warrior-king who sought the Grail was so often associated with them. Perhaps folk memory remembered something we have now lost and saw in these stones a portal to a different mode of being.
A recent CGI reconstruction of the site by CADW inadvertently confirms my initial avian impression. My first thought when I came across it a couple of years ago was that the stone cladding of the mound that enclosed the stones and the sunken chamber that once lay within, looked remarkably like the hooded wings of our red kites. Thus, if the reconstruction is anywhere near correct, the Old Ones were enfolding those within the structure in the protective wings of a great bird that turned its head back to watch the approach from the lowlands.
It seems almost irrelevant to give facts and figures about this place. The capstone is over sixteen feet long and weighs around seventeen tonnes. It is held on three orthostats, some eight feet above the ground as it now stands; the sunken chamber would have made the distance even greater. It appears that the earliest structure on the site was an oval cairn flanked by dry stone walls. Later it was extended and became a long barrow around a hundred and thirty feet long.
The central stone of the portal may have been the blocking stone for the final form of the tomb, or it may have originally been a standing stone on its own. Within the chamber was a felled stone, deliberately left, with traces of burning and older stone-holes. Eventually, a semi-circular forecourt was created beyond the wider end of the capstone, which was blocked, but not supported by, the central monolith… a stone that looks remarkably like something I painted several years ago.
The top of the capstone slopes down towards the valley, as does the peak of Carningli that forms the western horizon of this remarkable site. But it is not the size, or the shape that is the overriding impression that seeing these stones makes upon you. It is not even the fact that, as Robin Heath points out in his book Bluestone Magic, Pentre Ifan, with Llech y Drybedd and Bardsey Island, form a precise north-south alignment that goes a long way to establishing the credentials of the long-distance surveying in which our ancestors were engaged.
No, it is the elegance of the stones themselves. Their delicacy and poise. The fact that the great capstone is held by nothing more than three needle-points of stone that have held it thus for millennia. Seventeen tonnes of stone that appear to hover above the ground, as lightly as a feather on the breeze, carried on slender shards with a precision that is simply stunning.
If the CGI interpretation is anything like accurate, all this would have been buried under tonnes of earth. No one would have seen it. Is this, then, on a par with the sumptuous wall paintings of Egyptian tombs? A last gift to the dead? Or maybe the stones were never covered at all? Or is it because the Old Ones believed that those within saw with an otherworldly sight?
The elegant poise of the stones is a confident expression of both skill and beauty. The false fragility of Pentre Ifan makes the sites we had seen earlier look like country cousins… heavier, cruder of construction, though not less powerful for that. It is as if the ancient ones tried their hands at the other sites before attaining perfection here… yet of the ones we had seen, Pentre Ifan is by far the oldest. Perhaps, then, this is the cathedral, built to show where the centre of power is found and the others are the parish churches where the ordinary folk do the real work of living and dying; simpler, but always full of life. But there is something about the place… something I would like to sit with in the silence and listen to on the wind. Perhaps it is that feeling that has given rise to the tales of the Fair Folk.
For the third and final time, our company gathered beneath the capstone and shared the Gorsedd Prayer. This time, we were granted the gift of hearing it read in Welsh and in that language it took on its true form, as if, like the stones, what we had known on the outside was only a pale reflection of its inner soul… a soul we were privileged to be touched by as it shone for a moment in the midsummer sun. We had not enough time to spend there, but we had enough. As we had arrived, a party was leaving the stones. As we left, another party arrived. It is often the way… as if by leaving space for Spirit, It creates a space for us. That too is a gift.
The Yews of Nevern… and Other Surprises
I was looking forward to Nevern Church… another one of those, like Kilpeck, that we would visit ‘one day’… and were visiting at last. To think that we had seen so much since Kilpeck, just three days before, seems incredible. But that’s the way these trips seem to work… time takes time off to stretch for a while, leaving us space to play. The trouble with some of these places, though, is that you come across them in researching other places and forget what it is that you actually wanted to see. All I could recall was that Nevern was home to the Bleeding Yew and was, in fact, renowned for its avenue of ancient yew trees, some of them over seven hundred years old. Just like Kilpeck, though, we found far more than we imagined.
The Bleeding Yew is not an uncommon gardening phenomenon, but few have a place in legend or are credited with being miraculous. This one is said to exude the viscous, blood-red liquid because a monk was hung there for a crime of which he was innocent. Or because the Cross on which Jesus was crucified was a yew and the tree bled in sympathy. Or because it weeps until a Welsh king sits once more on the throne. Kings may have something to do with the story indeed; according to a theory expounded by Martin Porter at The Greenman, King Vortigern himself may have found his final resting place at Nevern when he fled from the Saxons in defeat. Whatever the true reason, it is a strange sight.
Vortigern takes us right back to the days when this church was first built and back to the days of King Arthur. The Arthurian legends that we all know and love are mainly drawn from later, romanticised retellings, but there are so many ancient sites and snippets of folklore that associate Arthur with Wales, as well as the later stories that ‘the once and future king’ may well have originated there. He is certainly associated with Nevern in folklore. Not only as some say that it was at Nevern that he met his end, but there is a Pilgrim’s Cross cut into the stone of what seems to be a bricked-up cave halfway up the hill to the remains of the castle… a site we would have no time on this trip to visit… and one legend has it that Arthur hid the Grail in this cave. Another, more Christianised version, is that the Knights Templar hid the Cross of the Crucifixion in the cave, the proximity of which might explain why the yew bleeds…. or at least why the legend arose. The timing would be about right for the yew, if it is over seven hundred years old, as the Templars were forcibly eradicated in 1312.
Behind the miraculous yew, I found a touching tribute to a late loved one on a grave. Left there many years ago, protected first by glass cloches, then covered with wire frames to prevent breakage, wreaths of delicate stone roses still rest on a tomb. It was when I looked up from the grave that I saw it, framed beneath the curve of a branch, and one of those expletives you really shouldn’t use on holy ground escaped my lips. Not that you could have missed it… not when it stands thirteen foot high and as fresh as the proverbial daisy beside the church…
The Nevern Cross… that was why I had wanted to come… not just for the yews. Wasn’t it? It was well worth the trip, just on its own. The Celtic Cross is over a thousand years old. Made of the local dolerite stone, it is carved in two pieces, with the cross head held in place with a mortice and tenon joint worked in stone. The sides are covered with the classic intertwined designs, crosses and swastikas… an ancient symbol of light… and there is a Latin inscription. On one side is written H/AN/.EH… the meaning of which seems lost. On the other DMS, which may be an abbreviation for the Latin word Dominus, meaning ‘lord’.
It is an incredible survival, the carvings still sharp and clear in spite of a millennium of weathering. What is less clear is the meaning of the knotwork and symbolism that adorns it. That the designs of the knotwork incorporate more than just beauty, there can be little doubt. At least part of it is a symbolic ‘language’ that would have been familiar to those who made it. Some symbols, like the swastika and the triquetra, the three-pointed designs that indicate the Trinity, we can at least partly understand, but much is now lost to us of these visual teachings.
Local folklore tells of how the villagers would gather at the stone on St Brynach’s feast day on April 7th, to wait for the first cuckoo to perch on the stone and bring with it the spring. To me that smacks of an older story and I thought of the Hunting of the Wren, wondering how that might tie in with the story. We marvelled at the cross and wandered around the churchyard that is filled with wildflowers, butterflies and interesting monuments before heading back towards the church to go inside. Then we saw it, and I remembered exactly why I’d wanted to come to Nevern… the Vitialanus stone.
The Vitialanus Stone is where Vortigern comes into the tale as the theory goes that this might be his tombstone. Not that we knew that at the time, that came with the research later. What we did know was that this was older by far than the Nevern Cross… dating from around AD500 and a very early Christian artefact… if indeed it was ever Christian at all. Catching Stuart’s eye, I knew just what was going through his mind and sure enough, the outwardly irreverent, though accurate descriptive we use for these obviously phallic stones was the first thing he said. There is nothing to tie this stone to the religion of the Church, just an inscription in Latin that reads ‘VITALIANI EMERETO’, variously translated as ‘to the honour of Vitalianus’ or ‘the monument of Vitalianus’. But that wasn’t the really exciting part. The best bit was that along one edge of the five foot stone, Vitalianus’ name is carved in Ogham script.
Ogham is written by making short, but precisely written lines along the edge of stone or wood. The position determines the letters. One legend tells that it was the mythical Scythian King, Fenius Farsa, who invented Ogham, shortly after the fall of the Tower of Babel. He journeyed with 72 scholars to the plains of Shinar to study the confusion of languages, but they had already dispersed. Remaining there himself, he sent his scholars to find the languages and collated them himself into a perfect script, naming the twenty-five letters after his scholars. A symbolic story if ever there was one, especially as Amraphael, king of Shinar, was one of those to whom Melchizedek, the priest of the Most High, served bread and wine. Another tale says it was Ogma mac Elathan (Ogmios), a master of poetry and speech, who created the script, intending it only for the bardic elite. The first message was a magical warning written on a beech tree, and the letters thus all bore the names of the trees. Either story will do for me as both have meaning.
It was an incredible find… there is something very moving in seeing the script of our distant forefathers, knowing what was written, though not why… it brings them close and makes the encounter personal, erasing the centuries and affirming the connection across time. Nevern has been well worth a visit… and that was before we even crossed the threshold of the little church!
St Brynach’s church at Nevern stands right on the bank of the little river Caman. The old tower, the only part of the old Norman church still surviving unchanged, is within feet of the water that sparkles beside a narrow footpath. An old stone footbridge crosses the water towards the pilgrim’s path down from the ruined castle on the hill… the church was once a stopping point on the pilgrim’s route to St David’s. Many things survive here, from the Celtic Cross in the churchyard to what we would find inside the church. The wild strawberries growing beside the river, however, did not survive for long.
The church was founded in the sixth century when Brynach built a monastery here. The original buildings would probably have been the beehive shaped stone cells more commonly seen in Ireland. This is not surprising as the Welsh called the saint Brynach Weddel… Brynach the Irishman. There are many tales of his life and miracles, from his reanimating a dead cow to sailing across the sea on a stone. The cow, which gave enough milk for all the monks, was cared for by Brynach’s tame wolf. King Maelgwn Gwynedd came to the Abbey, demanding a feast and sleeping places for his men… when he was refused, he slaughtered the cow, cutting it up for the pot. The water, however, refused to boil and the king, realising that this must be divine intervention, apologised. Brynach forgave him, restored the cow to life and, plucking bread from the trees, produced a miraculous feast. The king, to make amends, freed the abbey from taxation thereafter. Or so the story goes…
The best known story, though, is that Brynach would escape to solitude upon the summit of Mynydd Carningli, the hill that dominates the horizon, and would there commune with the angels. From here we could truly appreciate the scale of the mountain where we too had communed, sitting in silent prayer for a dear friend. It may seem superfluous to say so of a church, but Nevern is a prayerful place. Perhaps it is the ghosts of the monks that have been seen here that call in the quiet sunlight… or the fifteen hundred years of faithful prayer the land here has known, but there is an air of serenity about the church.
By the door of the church are the visitor’s book and information sheets and, on a card is inscribed the Celtic Rune of Hospitality.
I saw a stranger today.
I put food for him
in the eating-place
in the drinking-place
in the listening-place.
In the Holy name
of the Trinity
He blessed myself
and my family.
And the lark said in her warble
Often, often, often
in the stranger’s guise.
O, oft and oft and oft,
in the stranger’s guise.
When Christianity first came to these parts, it would have been the Celtic strain, distant from the rule and tenets of Rome. The faith embraced the beautiful, natural world and its creatures and was closer to the earthier roots of the older, indigenous faith. We had found on our trip to Scotland that where Celtic Christianity had been prominent, especially where there had been Culdee communities, there was a particular ‘feel’ that remained at the sites they had founded, even a thousand years and many paradigm shifts later. You could feel it here too. It is not something you can really pin down or describe… it is as if the opposing extremes of heaven and hell have never really taken hold through fear of damnation, but instead, heaven and earth have embraced each other.
It is a beautiful church, but the most fascinating things were the two windowsills in the south transept into which ancient stones have been set to protect and preserve them. One is the Braided Cross, a thousand years old and unusual in design, bearing the hallmarks of much earlier, Celtic art.
The second is around fifteen hundred years old, contemporary with the Vitalianus stone in the churchyard. This too bears an inscription in both Latin and Ogham. The Latin reads MAGLOCUNI FILI CLUTORI while the Ogham reads “maglicunas maqi clutari”, translated as ‘(the stone) of Maglicu, son of Clutarias’. To have seen one Ogham stone was a gift… but to have two was incredible.
There was stained glass… Victorian and later… showing the saints and scenes from the life and ministry of Jesus. There were doves of peace, holding olive branches, atop the chandeliers. A Romanesque arch above the organ… all the things you would normally look to see in a lovely old church, but for me, that bit of worn stone took the crown.
We walked back down through the avenue of yews and sat for a while on the old mounting block where the gentry once preserved their dignity… eating the wild strawberries we had found and marvelling at the great chunks of quartz in the village walls. As we were about to leave, there was a familiar keen from above. Looking up, two great birds sailed overhead. One had the rounded tail and white-patched underwings of the buzzard… its companion, though, was a different and unmistakable shape…so similar to the reconstructed ‘hooded wings’ of Pentre Ifan… a red kite. It seemed our day had earned their seal of approval.
Cider with Bessie
For once, I wished I wasn’t driving. I wanted to stop every few minutes and get the camera out… the whole area is very beautiful, but the road between Nevern and our next stop in the Gwaun Valley is exceptionally so. We were driving in a convoy though and it was fairly obvious that, had we stopped, we would be hopelessly lost. The narrow roads winding over hill, down dale and through the trees was not a place for loitering… and anyway, our guide had promised us cider.
We had been told to expect an unusual pub and that was a fair description in this day and age, when even the old inns are being taken over by chains, decorated in bright colours and given a modern twist. Bessie’s, officially known as the Dyffryn Arms, looks more like a home than a public house. Owned by the same family since 1840, Bessie herself has been serving ale through the serving hatch from the kitchen-cum-bar for over thirty-five years.
The cider was excellent… and much appreciated after the long, hot day. We sat outside by the side of the lane, surrounded by honeysuckle, bees and wildflowers. The rest of the residents of the tiny hamlet also seemed to be sitting on their doorsteps enjoying the early evening sun and a companionable hour was passed.
We had been obliged to forego our final stop of the day. The illicit cream tea and the ascent of Carningli had taken longer than anticipated out of our limited time and we had a table booked for dinner at a little place in Porthgain. It wasn’t the only place we would have liked to spend longer… not the only place there would not be time enough to see. All the more reason for a second workshop weekend in the area at some point…
The light was fading over the sea as we wandered down to the little harbour after dinner. Porthgain is a strange place, set, like many coastal villages, in a cleft between the hills. The landscape is scattered with ruins of the once prosperous slate mining industry that was based here in the 1900s. When slate mining ceased to be as lucrative, Porthgain survived by turning to making bricks from the local dolerite stone.
The ruins of old industry give the place a unique and sombre air at first glance, yet on reflection, they show the evolving life of a village and seem a fitting part of the landscape that is ever-changing and ever changed by the sea.
We sat for a while, watching the opalescence over the water lose its lustre and face to the grey of nightfall. It had been an utterly amazing day and we had seen and felt so much… from ancient stones to mountain tops, from homely pub to peaceful church. It beggars belief that you can, without appearing to rush, stretch time to include so much in the daylight hours of a single summer day.
It gives an odd sort of insight into how our ancestors were able to achieve so much…rising with the sun and living by its light. The art on display outside the gallery seemed to inspire such thoughts. I am not one for buying souvenirs, but I know that had I the resources, I would have taken one stone home with me.
The next day would be our last in Wales and we would be close to where we were staying in St David’s. We were all hoping for another of these beautiful days as we headed back to our hotel for the night, just as the birds were coming home to roost.
A ‘Misty, Moisty Morning’
We had enjoyed two glorious days of sunshine in Pembrokeshire. Drawing back the curtains of a room that had boasted a clear view of the sea the night before, it seemed that the morning would bring us a different view of Wales. Heavy sea-mist clung to every bush and every blade of grass was bent beneath the weight of water. I forced protesting feet back into the confinement of walking shoes. Like it or not, I would need the secure grip they offered on the slippery path. The rain fell doggedly… not heavily, just enough to stoically resist any attempt at intrusion by the sun and ensure that we would be thoroughly drenched. It would make photography difficult, with a constant search for some dry shred of clothing to clear the lens, but there was something entirely fitting about the mist.
The coastal path we would be walking is beautiful in the sunshine. The waters are crystal clear, with every pebble visible through the shifting sparkle of blue and turquoise. In the mist, you walk outside of time in a landscape full of mystery. Islands, barely seen through the veil, seem to hover as if magically suspended and you get a glimpse of how the oldest legends were born… and why Wales is hailed the birthplace of so many of them. Every so often a window would open through the mist, revealing the promise of beauty, just for a moment, before swallowing the tantalising vista. The cliffs became a place of ghosts and forgotten voices that whispered in the rain.
The mist softened the distance between the leading party and the few of us walking at a slower pace, making each cluster of souls an island in the brume. For once, I was reluctant to hurry on and catch up, in spite of the rain… there is something quite unique about the sea-silence that seems to gather at the edges of the heart, waiting to share its secrets.
We were walking what must once have been part of a pilgrim route along the cliff tops. To our right, fields and flowers waved bowed heads in the invisible breeze. Beneath us, to the left, small rocky bays invited exploration on brighter days. The saturated earth glowed with countless shades of vivid green, splashed with the colours of summer. From every cliff, ancient faces seemed to watch the way to the little chapel that was our goal.
When the diminutive shape of St Non’s finally emerged from the mist, I greeted the sight with mixed feelings. It is a place I have long wanted to visit and I was very glad that finally, I was about to do so. It would undoubtedly be good to shelter from the weather for a little while too and simply sit in the quiet of the chapel, resting my unforgiving feet. But there was a part of me that was in no hurry to leave the mists and return to the ‘real’ world; the warmth and friendship in the human voices of my friends would drown the chill song of the western seas that calls to some far memory whose shade haunts my blood.
The Chapel in the Mists
The chapel of Our Lady and St Non perches no more than a few yards above the steep cliffs and clear waters of the bay. Rising beyond a bank dotted with the brilliant spires of foxgloves, it was a welcome sight on a damp morning. It is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time, though the building itself is less than a hundred years old. The tiny chapel, just twenty-five feet long and twelve feet wide, was built in 1934 by Cecil Morgan-Griffiths. He had built a house on the clifftop, close to a far more ancient site that has long been revered as a holy place and, as the nearest Catholic Church was many miles away, he built the little chapel that would become the most westerly in Wales.
Morgan-Griffiths used stones and fragments of architectural beauty from ruined chapels in order to build his own. The holy water stoup by the open doorway as brought here from the Chapel of the Fathoms. It is all that now remains of a place wonderfully named. The pale slab of stone that forms the altar came from the chapel dedicated to St Patrick that once stood at Whitesands, where we had officially begun our weekend.
It seems as if the little chapel is home to the ghosts of many ancient places, giving their bones sanctuary within its walls. Perhaps it is this that makes the place seem warm with prayer and peace. The chapel is a living place of worship and pilgrimage… the Sisters of Mercy care for the chapel and Morgan-Griffiths’ old home, keeping it as a place of spiritual retreat. It has a gentle air; a sense of inclusion that welcomes all who seek shelter or solace within its walls… even the birds.
We were greeted by the swallows… a nest perched high in the rafters, seemingly overfull with nestlings with their frantic parents swooping in and out in the incessant search for food. That explained why the door stood open in such inclement weather. Even so, I had the feeling it was never completely closed… neither to the birds nor to those travellers who find their footsteps leading to the chapel on the cliff.
We wandered around the chapel, reading the signs and prayers in neat little frames on the walls and looking at the stained glass that commemorates the local saints. The chapel is dominated by a beautiful but incongruously large statue, a copy of Notre Dame de Victoire from Paris. Her marble sophistication seems out of place in this tiny space made of reclaimed stones and shattered fragments of the past and sits in stark contrast to the simplicity of the Stations of the Cross that line the walls… no ornate scenes here, just small slivers of wood with a circled cross, identical on each of the Stations. We would learn why a little later, but they seemed to confirm that within this Roman Catholic chapel lay a Celtic heart.
One by one, without a word, we each sat in silent contemplation. The space invites that inner silence that is, in itself, a prayer. One by one, we each rose when we were ready, taking a last look at the stained glass in their recessed windows. One portrayed St Winifride… whom we knew as Gwenffrewi. The saint and her story has been woven through our travels for a while.
Above the altar, St Non herself is portrayed in a window by William Morris. Hers is a curious story, combining many elements found both in the saintly hagiographies and the legends of older times. The celibate daughter of a local lord, she was ravaged and found that she was with child. The pious lady lived on nothing but bread and water throughout her pregnancy. When it was realised that the priest could no longer preach in the presence of her unborn child, it became obvious that the child would be a power in the land. The local lord, fearing the future, sought to murder the babe as soon as it was born, but Non escaped and a violent storm protected her. In spite of the wild weather, she gave birth to her son bathed in light, though she left marks in the rocks that she grasped when the birth-pains took her. She named her son Dewi… we know him as St David, the patron saint of Wales.
Before we left her chapel, one of our Companions, who loves the place dearly, led us in a simple and beautiful prayer, capturing with his words the spirit of a universal faith that belongs to no religion and to all. In these sacred spaces, be they church, chapel or ancient stones, there is a common core of faith that transcends dogma and belief, seeing to the heart of what lies behind our quest for understanding. In such moments the veneer of labeled religion is stripped away and hearts can come together in harmony, each with their own faith, their own story and holy name… and know that they, like the Light towards which all turn in many guises, are One.
Where Ancient Sites Collide
Wreathed in mist and roses, the Mother greets those who visit the sacred spring of St Non. The little shrine to the Virgin was erected in 1951 when the Passionist Fathers restored and rededicated the spring, as if to leave those who walk the cliff-top path in no doubt of the deity from whom the healing waters flow. Me, I was having grave doubts about such a claim of allegiance.
The legend tells that St Non gave birth to her son, St David, in the field beside the spring. St Non was the daughter of a noble house who had been ravaged and left with child. The healing waters of the spring began to flow when the babe was born, bathed in light, while a thunderstorm of biblical proportions raged around the mother and child, protecting them from harm. I have to wonder what a pregnant noble lady was doing alone, in a storm on a cliff top, when her time came upon her. As pious as she was, eating only bread and water throughout her pregnancy, surely she would have headed for church or convent to seek aid and sanctuary? Especially as, in Welsh, her name means ‘nun’. If that was the whole story, somehow, it didn’t add up.
Many of the holy wells are connected with female saints. The symbolism is fairly obvious… the waters of life are a feminine preserve. They were places of veneration long before Christianity came to these isles and stories are remembered in the folk record of goddess and fae alike at such places. Perhaps St Non was heading for the healing waters as the pains of childbirth came upon her? Perhaps the well was already there and was ‘born anew’ in the Christian faith at that point. It was a thought.
The waters of the spring are reputed to bring healing and were considered miraculous. They have been visited by pilgrims and those with faith in their powers since time out of mind and the clear spring is one of the most sacred places in Wales. A cloutie hanging limp in the mist showed that the well still draws those who seek healing.. as did the small, unobtrusive offerings that were left there. Given the sanctity accorded to the place by the faith of its visitors, I felt bad about questioning the veracity of the story… yet there was no lack of respect for the faith of those who see its truth. Truth may wear many faces… not all of them factual… and all of them equally valid.
We each paid our respects in our own way. I will pay my respects to the outward form of any religion. My own faith sees no distinction between the faces worn by the essence of divinity that lies behind all the Names and stories. I recognise, however, the human need to grasp and sequester all that seems best and most sacred and call it our own. There are many instances throughout history where the sacred places of one stream of belief have been adopted by another. In our own history, the directive from Rome to the evangelising fathers was quite clear in that respect. Just beyond the shrine and the well, lies a small, fenced enclosure and the ruins of Capel Non, the chapel that was built on the spot where the saintly lady gave birth to her son. Legend says that it was built upon the site of St Non’s house… which might explain why she was up on the cliffs alone at that time…except the ruined chapel stands right in the middle of what appears to be a Bronze Age stone circle…
Maybe that was why St Non was wandering the cliff top in a storm… seeking the shelter of a sacred place older than the Christian faith by a thousand years or more. Or maybe the story has absorbed an older tale and the Christian saint has evolved from a Celtic goddess whose ‘house’ was the stone circle. That too is not unknown and the parallels between goddesses and saints, such as Brigid for example, have been well documented and argued. For me, there is a beauty in that… a simple continuity of faith that defies the political machinations of sacerdotal statesmen. Those in power may have sequestered and renamed the stories at the heart of the old ways, they may have laid the veneer of their own religion over the deities of the Old Ones and built in riven stone within the ancient sacred places… yet their essence remains unchanged and draws those who seek, however their belief is framed.
A small step within the ruined chapel marks the spot where the altar once stood. Like the ancient alignment from Pentre Ifan to Bardsey that, according to Robin Heath marks north as a sacred direction, the chapel is unusually oriented north-south, rather than the traditional east-west, with the altar in the north. Little else remains of the chapel built where the patron saint of Wales was born some fifteen hundred years ago. In one corner propped against a wall, is a stone slab, carved with a symbol that has become known as St David’s Cross. The stone, thought to be perhaps twelve hundred years old, was found at the site. It may have been either grave marker or altar stone and bears the symbol of the Cross within a Circle… which seems very appropriate here.
The Cross immediately explained the simplicity of the identical Stations of the Cross in the more modern chapel of Our Lady and St Non… they were replicas of the stone, carved in wood… ‘the living and the dead’ brought into the worship within a holy house…another link with an ancestral faith.
The ruined chapel and holy well were once sought by the feet of many pilgrims. The chapel is one of the oldest Christian sites in Wales and perhaps the most sacred. Here, where the stones of an ancient faith encircle those of the new, there is neither ‘living’ nor ‘dead’, only a peaceful recognition of the endless round of humanity’s quest for understanding.
The Accidental Tourist
Frankly, I thought it appallingly bad planning. Could the town not have chosen a different day to ceremonially install their new mayor? It isn’t as if we hadn’t advertised our itinerary for the weekend, culminating with a visit to the Cathedral at St Davids and lunch in the refectory. In that order. But no… the Cathedral was otherwise occupied and would be for some time to come. It was still occupied by the time we had finished warming up with pots of tea… and still too busy after I had wandered round the outside of the church with the camera, trying to get a few good shots in spite of the rain that was now beating a steady tattoo on the lens. We were at a loose end.
“Another twenty minutes or so,” said the gentleman manning the door. Some chose to stay in the warmth of the refectory. Others disappeared, planning to gather again shortly. I wandered off over the little stream to be a tourist. Tourism is not the point of these weekends and although we have a plan of where we will go and what we want to see, we have learned to be flexible in our approach, shunning rigorous timetables in favour of time to savour the sites we visit. Sometimes, though, there is nothing wrong with a little tourism. The Cathedral is not the only thing worth visiting in St Davids and, with little time at our disposal, the Bishop’s Palace is a good place to while away a few moments. To be fair, it deserves a lot more than I had to give it, being part of one of the oldest and certainly most important Christian sites in Wales.
We’d had our first sight of the ruined palace as we approached the cathedral from St Non’s, watching the remarkable architectural details reveal themselves through the mist and rain. Fifteen hundred years ago, a monastery grew up here. It was not then the peaceful spot we know today and the monks who lived there saw their home sacked by Norse raiders, then quietly rebuilt it, at least ten times over the course of the next four hundred years. It was only after the Norman invasion of 1066 that the monks began to know peace. The strong presence of the Norman barons imposed fortifications on the growing town, protecting the monastery and the relics it housed.
St Davids was already recognised as an important spiritual centre. William the Conqueror himself came to pay his respects to the relics of St David in 1081. Later, in 1284, King Edward I would also make the pilgrimage. The remains of the current palace reflect that later date; the building was begun around that time, and work continued until the middle of the following century. The Reformation saw the demise of the palace; its fall into ruin much hastened by Bishop William Barlow, who sold the lead from the roof in 1536 to pay the dowries of his five daughters… the equivalent of twelve years income from the episcopal see!
It is always curious to begin to reconstruct in imagination a site that is now but a shadow of its former self. It matters little whether it is a stone circle, a tomb or a palace… it is the small, almost insignificant things that give the real clues, not to how a place looked… but to how it was. Here, the warm tones of the volcanic rock and local stone have been embellished by a chequerboard pattern. Great windows that perhaps once have held stained glass pierce the walls and arcades decorate every face of the palace, inside and out. Wide spaces, high ceilings, towers and turrets… this is a visible show of wealth and power, more temporal than divine. The little monastery that faithfully guarded its treasured relics against the invaders was obliterated by its own
The ruined palace is now crumbling, its wealth generated by tourists, its fabric held tenuously together by those who seek to maintain the presence of a building that has itself become a relic. Its empty shell holds more than memory, it holds a lesson pertinent to why we had gathered for the weekend. We too start small, growing with the simplicity of a child that sees the world unclouded by the complexities of adulthood. As we grow, the malleable clay of our personality is shaped by choice, reaction and experience and the ego builds walls behind which it can hide from invaders. But the protective walls are stark and feel like a prison, so we add embellishments in an attempt to display an illusion of personal power… and, if left untended, those too will eventually crumble and decay becoming both a danger and a liability that can cost us dearly. Like the palace, what began in simplicity, grows beyond our ability to sustain it and beyond its true purpose.
The first monastery here was a simple place, designed as a vessel to hold something sacred. Overlaid with the trappings of power and ambition, that purpose was lost. The clay of our being is ours to shape. It too holds something sacred… whether you believe in the soul or simply believe in the indefinable spark of animating life. We owe it to ourselves to make sure the vessel that we build is fit for its purpose. It is not in the walls that we build, but in the space within, where we live and have our being. It is not the vessel, but the space within that holds the wine.
The Talking Stone
While I was researching the cathedral at St Davids, I came across a couple of legends that caught my fancy. Both of them concern Llechllafar, the talking stone. The name just by itself was intriguing… where did the emphasis lie? Was it a stone that spoke, or a stone where people could speak? I soon found out and it tied in with the legends of the old corpse roads that Stuart and I had come across when working on our books.
When villages began to get their own churches, quite often it would only be the mother church of the area that had burial rights. People were obliged to carry their dead, often long distances, to bury their loved ones. There were many legends associated with these old highways that could scale hills and ford rivers for mile upon mile, following a straight line, very like the leys, that might take them even through homes…the spirits of the dead always took a straight course, and a convoluted path would confound or confuse them.
There was a corpse road at St Davids… and it was crossed by Llechllafar.
The talking stone was a huge white slab of marble, ten feet long, six feet wide and a foot thick. It lay across the little river Alun that separates the cathedral from the palace… making me wonder which side was that of the living and which that of the dead, especially as, beyond the ruins of the bishops palace, there is only the sea and the islands that float in the mist…
Llechllafar, wrote Giraldus Cambrensis around 800 years ago, as part of the corpse road was so old even then that it was worn smooth with age and the passing of many feet. As one body was carried across it for burial, the stone spoke. So far I have found no record of its words. The effort of making itself heard was so great that the stone split asunder and, from that day, none would cross that way through fear.
There is another legend that does record the words… though here, it was Merlin, not the stone, who spoke them. Merlin foretold that an English king would attempt to cross the bridge. This king would have conquered Ireland and would also have been injured by a man with a red hand. Crossing Llechllafar the king would die.
King Henry II, having just returned from Ireland, made a pilgrimage to St Davids. He heard of Merlin’s prophecy yet chose to cross the water by Llechllafar. As he reached the other side alive, he laughed at the prophecy, calling Merlin a false seer. A local man shouted out that Merlin’s words held true… Henry had not conquered Ireland, so he was not the king of the prophecy.
Henry never did defeat the whole of Ireland…
It wasn’t until the 16th century, that a new bridge was built and the stone taken away. Llechllafar is now lost, along with any words it may have whispered as to why it was so important. In a land where the hills hold the quarry from which the bluestones of Stonehenge were hewn, and where ancient stones now stand silent in the landscape, you have to wonder about its origins…
An Uneasy Peace
Where do you begin when you have to write about a cathedral? Each chapel, every corner, every nook and cranny is replete with art and history. The sensory input is so much that all you can do is walk and attempt to catch the aura of the place and snippets of information as you marvel at how much of the past is preserved in wood, stone and colour. For me, outside is a good place to start. Apart from places like Lincoln where the outside is overwhelming as what lies within the walls. It gives a chance to get a feel for the place and seems to put what you will find into context.
Not that we had a lot of choice… the mayor-making was taking its time and, until they were finished, we were left with the refectory and the exterior to play with. The refectory is a lovely space, with high, clear glass windows overlooking the cloisters. It now holds a cafe and an art exhibition was in progress while we were there, but instead of mangling the ancient architecture, a floating, self-contained mezzanine has been installed that barely touches the old walls. It does spoil the proportions of the lofty space… but it is a practical and not unattractive compromise that allows modern usage of an otherwise impractical height. It also serves tea and, while several of the party lingered over that welcome beverage, I wandered off to look at the walls.
Not just the cathedral walls, but the remnants of the old town walls built by the Norman lords not long after the Conquest. The walled enclosure dates back to at least the 12th century, and the contours of the earthworks still remain visible. The tower that now houses the bells was added a century later and was once the consistory court of the bishops and also houses the bishops’ dungeon. The gatehouse and taller south tower came a hundred years after that.
The first religious community here was founded by St David himself. The saintly bishop died in 589, which makes this one of the oldest known religious sites of Christianity in Britain. Between 645 and 1097 the monks faced the incursions of raiders, seeing their brothers and bishops killed, one after the other. A beautifully carved stone that marries the older, Celtic art with the newer, Roman iconography is now housed in the gate-tower, that once marked the grave of the sons of Bishop Abraham, Hedd and Isaac, who were killed by the Vikings in 1080.
You can see the antiquity of the place… but only at close quarters. The lower courses of the walls show their earliest origins in places. It has seen much destruction during the past thousand years. The cathedral building itself was begun in 1181. In 1220, the new tower collapsed and less than thirty years later, an earthquake caused further damage. Relics of St David and St Justinian were inhumed in jewelled shrines… until in 1538 Bishop Barlow, seeing their veneration as superstition, had the relics removed and the shrines stripped of their riches. For the next few hundred years, successive bishops added chapels, improvements and extensions, making the building reflect its importance at the heart of the religious and political life of the area…until the forces of Oliver Cromwell devastated the building during the years of the Commonwealth of England.
It was not until 1783 that John Nash, best known in his later role as architect to the Prince Regent, was commissioned to restore and rebuild the cathedral. He re-used medieval traceries for his great west front and the cathedral rose again. Even this was not the end of its troubles. Nash’s work was not up to standard and began to deteriorate rapidly. It was to be George Gilbert Scott who would finally restore the building in the 19th century; born in a vicarage not far from my home and whose work we have seen at so many places we have visited.
The great west front now looks back to an older age, wearing the same style as the Norman archways of the north and south doors. It is a curious thing to see the shapes and symbols copied. From one perspective, their uneroded state gives a glimpse of what the older stonework may have looked like…yet it is as if a child has tried to copy one of the Old Masters. The form is there… but no more than that. the soul is missing, the understanding of the symbolism not present….or, if present, it is an intellectual comprehension rather than the knowing of the heart. The carvings do not speak, they merely show.
After the wonders of the carved doorway and corbels of Kilpeck just a few days before, the contrast is stark. Beautifully executed by their craftsmen, they lack heart. They tell no stories, inspire no affirmation. There is no life, no joy and no humour in the reproduction of these symbols., just the posturing of form that mimics a fluid expression of faith.
The 12th century south door and its northerly counterpart are completely different from the west front. In spite of centuries of weathering, they are alive with movement, detail and expression. The contrast between the old and the new makes me wonder about how we have chosen to live, pursuing the outward forms of integration and conformity, while leaving little place for joy. In the organised forms of religion, we now see mostly the rigidity of ritual. Through the years that we have been wandering ancient sites and visiting the holy places of our forefathers, we have seen how the representations of an inclusive reverence for nature and the life of both body and soul, have given way gradually to a culture of sin and the need for repentance, illustrated by many of the medieval wall paintings depicting hell and damnation in no uncertain terms and with graphic detail for the sinner to contemplate.
I do not subscribe to the doctrine of eternal condemnation for sin. Of the saints whose stories we know form their own writings, few have entered into beatitude without struggling with their very human demons. We do not see the whole story of humanity, so cannot see how our little fragment of the tale fits into the whole, taking its unique place in the completion of a greater picture than we can perceive. We do not always see the good that may come from the seemingly bad, even if it serves only as a contrast by which we can appreciate the difference between light and shade, rigidity and movement. We make mistakes, take a wrong path, commit harm and it is from having made such choices that we can choose to learn and grow. We do repent. Not in the mundane sense of the word, where we admit guilt and say we are sorry, but in the true sense of turning ourselves around with a change of heart and mind. A change of consciousness. Like the cathedral, we live an uneasy peace, ever poised on the edge of change, but like the cathedral, the light shines within, opening the doors to a promise of beauty.
A Wounded Church
I had barely raised the camera to start photographing the interior of the great cathedral at St Davids before a gentleman approached and told me that I could not… or, at least, not without paying for a permit. Now, I know that these ancient churches cost a good deal to keep standing and pay for their conservation, but I have a problem with those that demand exorbitant entry fees before forcing a ‘no photography’ rule on unsuspecting visitors. Especially when they quote ‘copyright’ as the reason; I fail to see how something the best part of a thousand years old can still enforce copyright law.
St Davids, however, is more than reasonable… no entry fee is charged, donations are at the discretion (and therefore within the means of) visitors and the photography permit costs next to nothing. I paid without a qualm and wandered around with my official ‘photographer’ badge proudly displayed on my chest… until someone kindly pointed out that I was wearing it upside down.
Somehow, though, that seemed to fit. Little at St Davids seems to be quite ‘right’..at least not if you are looking for straight lines and accurate angles; the cathedral building bears the scars of a long and troubled life. Building began around 1181 and the Norman arches of the nave are typical of that period… each differently decorated with carvings. The ceiling would normally be vaulted stone, but between the collapse of the tower in 1220 and the damage caused by an earthquake damage in 1247/48, the fifteenth century wooden ceiling is kinder.
Everywhere the scars of an uneasy past blend with the natural evolution of a great church over the centuries. The ghosts of older arches still mark the ancient walls above their more recent counterparts.
Window embrasures seem to smile wryly at their displacement writing in stone and in warped and bent wood the story of a long and interesting life. Yet the church wears her age well, smiling serenely through her wrinkles, knowing they have been written upon her face by both sorrow and joy, tragedy and love.
Many have passed through her embrace… kings and princes, beggars and saints. Some have remained, to sleep within her protection, others have left their shadow upon her walls. On one pillar in the south aisle, like a photographic negative, the spectral shade of a Prince still stands guard.
Along the aisles, the great and good have their tombs. Many of them have lost their faces… most have lost their names, bearing only the carved initials and signatures of centuries-old graffiti, carved as if in some desperate attempt to leave a mark upon history by lacklustre lives. In some things, humanity changes little.
Is it, I wonder, the only way some feel they are able to be part of the stream of time? It is the lettered, not the illiterate, who carve their names thus in such a place. Is it with advancement and education that dissatisfaction with one’s lot may begin to rear its head for those already insecure in their own skins?
It seems a strange thing to me that it is those with enough of an education to be able to carve their names who choose to deface something long held sacred. Or is it perhaps some attempt to associate themselves forever with the sanctity of a holy place of pilgrimage? To some things, there will never be a single answer.
Many feet have traversed these aisles over the centuries. In 1123, Pope Calixtus II officially recognised St Davids as a place of pilgrimage, and, given the importance of the saint’s shrine, decreed that two pilgrimages to St Davids were equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem.
Many rest here, adorned with the names of those who came to stand by their graves, yet whose own names have a place at the heart of Welsh history. The great and the good of history, about whom stories are still woven and told. Some of them wrote their name into the history books… some of them wrote the histories. People like Rhys ap Gruffydd, one of the most important princes in the history of the country, of whom Geraldus Cambriensis wrote that he was “a man of excellent wit and quick in repartee.”
And Gerald himself, a scholar and one of the ecclesiastics who were excused from the Crusades to work on the building of the cathedral. Walking through the quiet aisles of this cathedral, you walk with ghosts and shadows of a past unforgotten yet whose stories have passed into myth and legend. The sense of history is alive here and whispers in wood and stone of the continuity of life. The same qualities that animate our own hearts and minds once carried these people through their days… from strength to ambition, from curiosity to simple faith. We are not so different today from how we once were. The scarred walls, for all their magnificence, serve to remind us of what we have in common with our ancestors… and each other… at a very human level. Most of us will pass faceless into history. What, if anything, remains of our individual stories will pass from fact into a telling more akin to fiction than to truth as we are remembered through lives and perceptions other than our own. The only lasting memorial we can leave is how we walk the earth and how we touch the lives of others. In that, every day, we change the world.
The Painted Church
It is difficult for our modern eyes to imagine the colour that would once have been present within our oldest churches. The carved and decorated facades, often covered with statuary, would have been brightly painted. Walls that we are used to seeing in mellow stone and whitewash, touched by the ochre ghosts of medieval paintings, would once have gleamed in the flickering candlelight as the frescos borrowed life from the flames and processed through the shadowed aisles.
It is in the great cathedrals that we can still get a glimpse of the light and colour that provided such a contrast to the homespun world when dyes were expensive luxuries reserved only for the wealthy. At St Davids, a high, painted lantern still crowns the arches of the Crossing, drawing the eye ever upwards to the heavens.
Delicate traceries of contrasting stone mark the vaulted ceilings of the chapels, punctuated by highly coloured shields and bosses displaying designs both armorial and symbolic. In the thirteenth century Lady Chapel at the Easternmost end of the cathedral, I saw a symbol I recognised, the three hares who share their ears. Each hare has two ears…yet only three ears are depicted.
In Christian terms, it symbolises the Trinity, though it has older and other meanings that include and transcend the artificial barriers that we erect between our various cultures and religions. It is a symbol I frequently wear, reminding me of a much-loved friend whose physical presence is far across the ocean yet who is never far from my heart. Other bosses in the little chapel show the Dragon, the symbol of Wales as well as demonic creatures apparently devouring the unholy or perhaps just those who are tempted.
Today our churches are comparatively pallid affairs with colour used sparingly, mainly in stained glass and textiles. There is still a sense of awe, inspired by the scale and beauty with which you are greeted when you walk through their doors. In the older places though, with their vast proportions, lofty, lighted vaults and rich decoration, you can see how they must have appeared to those who visited them.
To the lords and princes, the vast, ornate space would have spoken of power, both temporal and divine. From the ordinary folk, the overwhelming presence of that power must have evoked automatic obedience. To the pious, the beauty and craftsmanship would have seemed a fitting externalisation of faith made manifest in an attempt to echo the glory their inner hearts could see, while to some it must have seemed as if they were afforded a glimpse of a fragment of Heaven itself.
There is much colour remaining at St Davids, from the painted ceilings to the stonework, from the fragmentary frescos to the gilded reredos behind the High Altar and the stained glass that punctuates the clear.
Yet for me, it is the smaller details that may well pass unnoticed that, in bypassing the sense of majesty, truly capture something of the long history of the people who have passed through the portals of this ancient church. It is the traces of polished colour on the memorial brasses, like those on the tomb of Edmund Tudor, that speak of the touch of reverent hands or overzealous cleaning…
It is the intricate rendering of Celtic designs whose symbolic meanings are probably far more potent than we now know but which speak to the inner mind in a language of geometry that seems to bypass logic and reach straight for the wordless understanding of the heart…
Undoubtedly for me, it was the painted birds I was shown that bring the majesty down to human proportions. Such a simple painting, two magpies and an owl, hidden behind the arch of the carved stone screen of the pulpitum. Few would know it was there… few may notice it today, yet the birds seemed to bring something of the natural world into the unnatural magnificence of the cathedral.
They reminded me instantly of another church… this one, just a tiny, single cell building that stands on a site held sacred since prehistory. It is the place where many of our adventures began and its peace and simplicity hold a very special corner of my heart. On the walls there too, an owl and a flock of birds were painted half a millennium ago in the simple ochres of the time. There, St Francis stretches out his hand to them, speaking to his fellow creatures with love… and, within the vast interior of the cathedral, it is the little painted birds that remind me that Love is the central tenet of the Christian religion, so often lost beneath the politics and power-play of man’s ambition.
St Cecilia, St Francis and the birds, All Saints, Little Kimble.
Stories Great and Small
It is impossible to walk through any ancient place and not wonder about its story. In somewhere like St Davids Cathedral there are many stories, from those of the craftsmen who built the place, to the Story that inspired their work… and the tales of every pilgrim, priest and visitor who have passed through the old Norman doors.
For the most part, those stories have slipped silently into the forgotten vaults of history, unknown and now unknowable. Who, for instance, will know whose feet passed through the arches on the day we were there? The annals of the cathedral will record the mayor-making that had delayed our entry. They may record the names and stories of the civic dignitaries who were there… but the stories of pilgrims, the faithful and the curious who were also there on that day will leave no more of a mark upon the building’s history than their shadows.
Yet none who enter fail to add their own story to the great stream of history. Even on the physical level, each person who breathes alters the air and how it preserves or damages the building over time, each footstep adds to the wearing of the stone, each hand that touches leaves a trace behind that adds to the maturing patina of the building. Every story matters.
The tomb of a knight in armour shows the passing caress of centuries, the pale stone irrevocably changed and polished by the touch of hands and the irreverent carving of graffiti. Even those whose hands have traced the carvings on his breastplate will have forgotten their touch… yet the trace of their passage remains.
Few leave a lasting story here that can be as readily seen and understood as the great memorials, like the elaborate tomb of the Countess of Maidstone who died in 1932. Her name, acts and face are remembered in the cold marble of the chapel of Edward the Confessor that she restored, some three hundred years after its roof was stripped of its lead by marauding troops.
Some stories belong to the building alone and the nameless, faceless craftsmen who have passed quietly into the pale pages of history, leaving behind stories in stone and wood that seem to invite our questions. Some are symbolic images whose message we can trace or deduce… others seem to be an expression of inner joy and secret jokes that invite us to share their laughter. Nowhere is this more easily seen that in the misericords… the mercy seats for the ecclesiastical rumps to support them through the long hours of standing and service.
Folk-tale and symbol, allegory and observation…and quite possibly the odd reference to a disliked cleric… all wait in the shadows beneath the wooden perches of the Quire, though after five hundred years, the object of the joke and its carver are both forgotten. It is a reminder of our impermanence and the futility of seeking to impose our image on memory.
Fearing oblivion or through a desire to be remembered when they are gone, many seek to ‘make their mark’ upon the pages of history, carving from life the story by which they wish to be known. Yet such stories, by their very nature, are not remembered by their creator, but only through the perceptions of those in whose memory they survive. Time and forgetfulness will eventually erase us all from the great story of humanity… yet we each of us contribute the essence of the story to its pages.
Few of us will change the world in ways that history will notice, though all of us change the world with every thought and deed, every day. How, or even if, we are remembered, will be out of our hands. Why should we even wish to be remembered by those we did not know and love unless we too fear the oblivion of the unknown?
Like the artists and craftsmen whose names and stories are now lost to us, it is only what we do with each day that counts. The empire of the financial genius or property magnate will do him no good as he breathes his last breath, though his name may be remembered for years to come. Yet the teachers whose names we have forgotten, the parents whose children were raised in love and tolerance, the nameless smile that lights a day or the quiet act of generosity… these will never make the history books, but they change lives every day, shaping both present and future and annealing the past.
A Simple Man
Behind the High Altar of St Davids Cathedral there was once an empty space, open to the winds. In the early 1500s, Bishop Edward Vaughan created a chapel there which, for me, is the loveliest part of the cathedral. The Holy Trinity chapel seems to be a very simple space of hewn stone; such is the sense of harmony there that the intricate carvings of the fan vaulted ceiling barely register as being ornate.
Instead, the eyes are drawn to the altar and to a niche through which one can just about see through to the High Altar and the shrine of St David. Both the altar and the niche use carvings far older than their construction… fragments of history that were recognised as such five hundred years ago. In the niche, a sanctuary light burns before the ancient carved crosses that frame the little window. Above the altar, the reredos shows St James, St Andrew, St Peter and St Paul flanking a scene from the Crucifixion, with a Latin text, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”.
There is a sense of being enclosed here in an atmosphere of peace hallowed by centuries of prayer. Bishop Vaughan himself was buried in front of the altar. It seems an odd contrast… the churchman was responsible for many of the restorations and improvements that were added to the church in the sixteenth century and himself had an illustrious career… yet here he lies in an aura of simplicity.
Just outside this little chapel is another, very simple, where priests and knights rest in stone. Above the altar a depiction in stained glass of St David himself. The image is stylised and idealised, bearing little resemblance to the dress and accoutrements he would have habitually worn. St David was known as a simple man in life, yet his shrine is decked with gold.
Dewi Sant he is called by the Welsh and he is the nation’s patron saint. Little is known about him apart from those stories that have been passed down through long memory and the legends that arose about the saint. In the Middle Ages he was believed to be the nephew of King Arthur, but in truth little is known about his family history for certain. The tales say that he was the son of St Non, born at the place where the chapel now marks the site of her house within an ancient circle of stones. The Annales Cambriae say that he died in 601, although others suggest the date of his death to be AD544. He is reputed to have been over a hundred years old when he died… and legend has it that he lived till he was 147.
Much of what is known of the saint comes from the Buchedd Dewi (“Life of David”), written by Rhygyfarch around five hundred years after David’s death. Scholars doubt the veracity of many of the stories the book contains, believing that the author sought to use them to aid the ecclesiastical politics of the time. The Celtic version of Christianity had remained at St Davids far longer than most places and it was not until the eighth century that Roman Rule was accepted. At the time of Rhygyfarch’s writing, there was still a battle for equal status with Canterbury and certain details may have been being used to score points.
St David founded several monastic communities adhering to a strict and ascetic Rule of absolute poverty, where the monks worked hard, ate little and prayed much. He was renowned as a teacher and preacher and as a good man. There are a good many miracles attributed to St David. The best known was when he was preaching to a large crowd at the Synod of Llanddewi Brefi. The crowd could not hear him, but a hill rose up from under his feet and a dove landed on his shoulder… a clear sign that the Holy Spirit was with him. He had raised a widow’s son from the dead on the way to the Synod too. Perhaps my favourite is that the phenomenon of corpse candles is attributed to the strength of his prayers and love for his people. He prayed that they might be given a sign when their end was near so that they could prepare themselves to meet their Maker. In a vision he was told that from that day forward, those who lived in the lands of Dewi Sant would see the flickering lights of tapers to warn them of their approaching demise. The size and colour of the flames would denote who they were for. Corpse candles are spheres of light, commonly reported in Welsh legends, that travel close to the ground, especially upon the corpse roads the night before a death.
Another legend tells of his travels across the sea and how he sailed back upon a stone… the very same Sapphire Stone that is now housed in the cathedral. The simple, broken slab of blue stone may have been David’s portable altar and the tale more symbolic than true. A great sapphire altar is also associated with the saint that was his gift to the Abbey at Glastonbury, where his plans to rededicate the church were changed by a vision of Jesus, telling him that the chapel to His Mother had been dedicated already and needed no dedication by human hands. David built an extension to the Abbey instead and gifted the great sapphire altar. Curiously, a great sapphire was mentioned centuries later in the inventory…
The shrine of St David contained his relics, along with those of the French St Denis and St Justinian. They were removed by one bishop in an attempt to halt his veneration and the shrine later desecrated by the religious politics that damaged so much of our heritage and history. Now the shrine has been restored, with beautifully executed and gilded portraits and is once again a place of pilgrimage. In the niches below the pictures are reliquaries that are said to have contained the saints’ bones. Recent analysis of the relics shows this to be highly unlikely, the bones thought to be those of the saint coming from three different individuals and one of them a woman.
It doesn’t matter. Those who now visit the shrine are not credulous Medieval peasants with a superstitious belief in the power that resides in a shard of bone. Education allows a better understanding and even the best authenticated relic is now seen as representative of that greater Power that inspires faith. The shrine is still hallowed… by the faith of those who pray there. Whatever we fix our eyes and hearts upon in reverence is no more than a focus… a symbol through which the inexpressible can be wordlessly approached and the intellectually unknowable Known. When St David died it is told that the monastery was filled with angels. His last words to his followers have been softened by time and usage and ‘do ye the little things’ is a well-known phrase in Wales. Legend has become the heart of a people and through such stories we learn and grow. Things do not always have to be real in order to be True.
A Final Glimpse
We were much later than planned leaving St Davids. All of us had a long way to go before we would be home as we had come together from the far-flung corners of the land. The weather was foul, with heavy sea-mist and rain making driving difficult so we chose the back roads instead of the motorway… it would take longer, but be less unpleasant… and we might even get a final glimpse of mountains if the fog ever lifted. And it did, just briefly, showing us places that at any other time would have demanded that we stop. As it was, it was late into the evening and night was drawing in before we got home.
It has taken weeks to share our impressions of the Silent Eye’s weekend workshop in Wales and even now, we have barely scratched the surface. It seems incredible that we manage to pack so much into these weekends… and yet, we do not rush, taking whatever time the place itself demands to experience it and sharing time to talk.
Communication is at the heart of these weekends… with each other, with the endless thread of history and human thought and with the landscape itself. A leisurely pace rules and time itself seems to sleep, allowing us to step outside of its constraints, freeing us from the hammer of the minute hand for a little while and allowing us just to be where and when we are. And then it is onwards…and often upwards… towards the next adventure…