Ok, my big news this week is that I’ve booked my next trip. Paul and I will be jetting off to Tbilisi next Easter before then exploring the wilds of Armenia and Georgia. This won’t, of course, be my first trip to the Caucasus, my travelogue Latvia, Georgia and Turkey talks all about my last journey through Georgia and the easternmost provinces of Turkey, and in many ways I hope that this one will be an extension of that, with a particular emphasis on Armenia, a country that has fascinated me ever since I taught some Armenians back when I was working at the George Byron School in Bulgaria.
But that is all for the future; for now please let me present the travelogue of the pilgrimage that I undertook to Bardsey Island in Wales back in August of this year. And remember, to accompany it, there’s also a video!
Uncle Travelling Matt
Across the Sound
A Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island
I am on a boat. A wooden boat, not large, its timbers creaking as the waters push against it, its sails billowing as they catch the wind.
Around the boat is a tank grey sea. Beyond that sea I can see the land, low-lying, forested, greying as it melts into the distance. It is there that I have come from.
Above the land is the sky. Vast, fathomless. Carpeted with cloud, neither pregnant with rain nor allowing the sun’s bright rays to break through.
The waters lap against our craft and I grip the tiny hand of my son tightly. I must look after him; I need him to look after me. He looks at me. He trusts me. I love him.
We land. On the other shore. A beach of rounded pebbles, numberless, a million shades of grey. The waves wash over them and then retreat. They have done so since time immemorial. I pick one up. It is smooth yet mottled. It is perfect.
Beyond the pebble beach is a low cliff and in that cliff, a cave. Taking my son’s hand we walk to it.
The cave is a chapel. Simple, humble, rude. It is bare save for an icon of Christ and a candle burning brightly. I kneel down before them both and give thanks. I am home.
If 2012 was the Year of the Saxon Saints, then 2013 was the year of Wales. Inspired by my pilgrimage to St. David’s the previous December, I’d returned to the Principality half a dozen times in the months that intervened between that trip and this. Partially this was due to the fact that my son was now old enough to go camping and after just one attempt, he’d discovered that he loved it. On our first trip of the year, after the horrendous winter had finally cleared, we’d driven down the Lledr Valley and chanced upon a campsite of pure loveliness. We’d returned three times. Sitting by the campfire watching the clouds pass over the forested mountains, cleaning our teeth and keeping my beer cold in the river, chatting as a father and son should. Simple pleasures, yet the very best.
But that was not the full story. In addition to this there was something else. My trip to St. David’s and the Rhondda had also awakened something else: a way of looking at the Principality such as I had never had before. I loved her language, history and culture and longed to know her all the more intimately. When enough time had passed so that it was right to begin to consider pilgrimage again, then there was only one place that I was going to head to.
This time though, I was not alone. Glastonbury and St. David’s had taught me that I needed to walk, to attain my destination rather than just arrive at it – and I had a friend who not only wanted to walk but also needed the trip. And besides, I needed him too. I needed to understand.
Paul Daly is a guy who once did some supply teaching at the YOI where I worked. We went for a drink one Friday evening and have carried on doing so ever since. He lives in Norwich these days so its not such a regular thing as it was, but the tradition is nonetheless maintained. Beyond family, Paul knows me better than most.
On top of that Paul is Irish, and I mean very Irish. I mean Irish in the fact that you need a translator to understand what he’s saying despite the fact that he only speaks English and that he quite likes the IRA: he has a Bobby Sands pin badge for God’s sake which could get him into trouble if it weren’t for the fact that everyone in Britain is so ignorant of their own political history that they haven’t got a clue who Bobby is.
More importantly, before this year, Paul had never been to Wales. He’d passed through it countless times, from Fishguard or Holyhead to England, but never stopped for longer than a bacon sandwich. But after joining us on one of our camping trips in the Lledr Valley and a few days in a caravan near to Barmouth with me, my son, my ex and a gaggle of Vietnamese ex-pats, then he was hooked. Wales is Ireland, yet at the same time it is not. It is Celtic yet in the UK. Not independent nor that bothered about becoming so, yet has preserved her language. And Paul’s perspective on everything was different to mine and I wanted to understand it. He is growing more distant from the Catholic Christianity of his childhood; I am growing closer to it. He is a nationalist. I, most definitely, am not.
What we both shared however, was the fact that we were totally out of shape and needed some exercise. Which was a shame because this pilgrimage was going to involve a lot of walking, more than I had ever done before in my life.
To warm-up (and break the journey), I’d booked us in on a campsite near to Llangynog in Powys. We’d get there mid Saturday afternoon and then on Sunday take a warm-up walk of several miles to the Shrine of St. Melangell at nearby Pennant Melangell. Then we’d proceed onwards to our base campsite just outside Aberdaron on the very end of the Llŷn Peninsula which was where we would also end our long trek along the ancient northern pilgrimage route to Bardsey Island from Clynnog Fawr, a few miles south of Caernarfon. Then, the walk completed, we’d cross over to Bardsey on the daily boat where the pilgrimage would be completed at the ruins of the ancient Abbey of St. Mary where legend states that twenty-thousand saints are buried. That was the plan and with campsites, bed and breakfast and boat booked, all we had to do was set off.
The First Day
Things didn’t start well. Paul got lost before he’d even left Stoke and so returned home and I only discovered this when I phoned from our prearranged rendezvous at Ellesmere. But it mattered little, for all that it meant was that I was at the site an hour earlier and had time to set up and read some of my book before he arrived. That evening we walked into the tiny village of Llangynog, (named for St. Cynog, a 5th century martyr of whom little is known), where we went for a meal at the Tanat Valley Inn whose sign features the legend of the saint to whom we intended to pay homage to the following morning.
The legend of St. Melangell goes as follows. Prince Brochwel Ysgithrog, 6th century of Powys was out hunting one day in the area when his hounds caught scent of a hare. They chased the animal; down a valley only to find it taking refuge in the folds of the gown of a lady. Despite the prince’s urging, the hounds refused to approach her and when Brochwel put his horn to his lips, it stuck to them and no sound would come out. Recognising the presence of God, Brochwel asked the lady who she was and she replied that her name was Melangell and that she was an Irish princess who had fled a forced marriage and journeyed to this remote valley where she had stayed for fifteen years in solitary contemplation and prayer. So impressed was he by her tale, that Prince Brochwel immediately granted the entire valley to Melangell in order for her to found a religious establishment there which she duly did, dying in old age surrounded by her nuns.
Of course, as with any tale dealing with that murky era when Christianity arrived in our land and little was ever written down, the strict historical veracity of the Legend of St. Melangell is debatable, but there can be little doubt that a female hermit did live in that isolated place who impressed many, royalty included, with her piety and devotion, truly Marian attributes in a harsh and unforgiving land. Over the years he church developed into a modest pilgrimage centre and although her shrine, like so many others, was destroyed during the Reformation, it was rebuilt in 1958 and following a thorough restoration of the church in 1992, it has become increasingly popular with pilgrims of all denominations. That church however, was for the morrow. That evening all we needed was sleep, to ready us for the start of our sacred journey.
The Second Day
The walk down the lane from Llangynog to Pennant Melangell was beautiful. Leaving the village a local cheerily engaged in conversation with us whilst all along the lane pheasants filled the road and fields, (local lore forbids the killing of wild animal’s in Melangell’s valley in memory of the saint).
As we walked, the vicar and custodian of the shrine passed us in her car going the opposite direction, en route to the morning service in Llangynog and seeing me she waved, remembering me from my previous visit a couple of months before when I’d attended an afternoon service in the church and then a Welsh tea at the Melangell Centre (her house).
As we neared the shrine, I was surprised to see thousands of strips of plastic tied to the electric wires, fluttering in the breeze as if telling us we were approaching a sacred place. Sharing this with Paul, he proffered the far more secular explanation that they were more likely to be there to prevent birds from sitting on the wire, but whether that was the true reason or not, they reminded me of the thousands of tiny scraps of material tied around branches on the walk approaching Demir Baba and around countless other holy sites in the Near and Middle East; age-old symbols of prayer and faith.
Penannt Melangell Church is small and simple. Set within a yew grove sacred to the faith that dominated before that of Christ, it is a beautiful building built out of stone with an unusual tower.
Inside there is a fine wooden screen topped by a beautiful crucifix and numerous reminders of the saint, from icons to sculptures for she has inspired artists from many different traditions. I prayed at the shrine itself, reconstructed out of fragments of the mediaeval structure, the modern work being done in cement so as to differentiate it from the original.
I lit a candle by the shrine before then making my way into the tiny, semi-circular ‘cell y bedd’ (grave chamber) where tradition states that Melangell was originally buried. This tiny, holy place truly has an aura of simple Celtic sanctity and so there I knelt at the lectern provided and prayed the rosary, using the icons of Christ and St. Michael the Archangel to help me focus before moving on and retracing our steps back to our waiting cars at Llangynog, the pilgrimage now well and truly underway.
We journeyed on, over the Berwyn Mountains to Bala, near to which we dined, then on the spectacular road to Trawsfynydd, then down into Porthmadog, onto Criccieth where we stopped for a cup of tea and then onwards to Aberdaron at the very end of the Llŷn, the northernmost of Wales’ two great peninsulas. I would like to say that my mind was entirely focussed on the Divine now that this pilgrimage had truly begun, but alas, it was not. When it’s the final day of a close final Ashes Test, then even God must take a back seat for a few hours!
We set up our tents at the campsite and then drove into Aberdaron village itself for some fish and chips before heading for the clifftops at Porth Meudwy – the traditional harbour for Bardsey – where we enjoyed another warm-up walk of a mile or two along a coastline that was spectacular but did not compare with the cliffs around St. David’s which I’d hiked along the year before. Then, to bed, for the following day would be a big one.
 Incidentally, this was not Prince Brochwel’s only brush with sanctity: his mother was St. Tudlwystl and his son was St. Tysilio.
 See my essay ‘Razgrad and Isperikh’ and my travelogue ‘Balkania’.