Friday, 27 December 2013

Pilgrimages: Across the Sound (Part 4)

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And so we have the final part of ‘Across the Sound’ and the final post of 2013. It’s been another record-breaking year on UTM and I’d like the thank you all for visiting and reading and I hope that my travel experiences have helped to enrich your own.

There’s plenty more coming in 2014 too!  I’m going to kick off the New Year with a new travelogue, ‘The Missing Link’ which details my travels in 2012 through Ukraine, Moldova and Romania, filling in that missing link between Konotop and Bucharest left by the police problems at the end of ‘Across Asia with a Lowlander’. After that, I have travelogues on the Israel and Palestine, the UK and India and the UAE waiting, as well as short pieces on Japan and Vietnam and updates from my travels in 2014, the main trip already booked in being a journey around Georgia and Armenia. But for now, it’s back to mystical, spiritual Wales where I finally cross the sound and land on the other side…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Check out my V-log of the trip!

Links to all parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Days 1 & 2

Part 2: Day 3

Part 3: Day 4

Part 4: Day 5

Links to accounts of all my pilgrimages:

Pilgrimages: To the Holy Island

Pilgrimages: Nazareth in Norfolk

Pilgrimages: And Those Feet Did...

Pilgrimages: The Sacred Heart of Wales

Pilgrimages: Across the Sound

England-Cities-Area-Map bardsey


The Fifth Day

The following morning I went to the Church of St. Hywyn in Aberdaron, the last of the pilgrimage churches where the two routes to Bardsey converged. I was alone now; Paul had left early on for he had a ferry to Ireland to catch from Fishguard that afternoon, but that was alright. He had returned with my car the previous night and together we’d collected his from Clynnog Fawr, retracing hours of walking in mere minutes, before enjoying a farewell meal in the Indian restaurant in Nefyn where God blessed us with the opportunity to assist a dementia sufferer in need.

Paul told me that he had got from the pilgrimage what he needed to get without having to cross the sound and so the time for comradeship was now over. This was a journey, like that greatest of all our journeys, that I would have to make alone.

St. Hywyn’s Church was beautiful and I lit a candle there before buying a book on Bardsey and a children’s tale of St. Cadoc for my son before venturing outside and sitting on a bench overlooking the sea to enjoy my breakfast and ponder upon this final leg of the trip.

Bardsey Island itself was invisible, hidden behind the headland, but the view brought to my mind the original reason for choosing to make this year’s pilgrimage to that place. For years now I’ve had a recurring vision during my prayers, crossing a narrow sound in a small wooden boat to an island, a wild island, with rounded pebbles on the beach, worn smooth by a million waves washing over them. And on that beach, set into the low cliff, is a tiny, simple cave chapel to which I would then go and pray before the solitary icon and candle. What did it mean? Did it have any meaning at all? Was it a premonition of my trip to Bardsey or would the real thing be but a pale reflection of the vision? Would crossing a real sound to a real holy isle shed any light on it all?

As I looked out I thought of the ancients. Many pious men and women over many centuries had crossed the perilous sound[1] to Bardsey in order to end their earthly days in that holy place. I thought again of Pilgrim’s Progress, of the final leap of faith into the River of Death which Pilgrim must take before he can attain the Celestial City, and I thought also of the Celtic Christians who viewed islands as halfway places between this world and the next, the very thinking that caused St. Brendan to abandon all that was dear to him and embark on his epic voyage across the Atlantic in a small, leather boat.

Shall I abandon the comforts and benefits of my home,

Seeking the island of promise our fathers knew long ago,

Sail on the face of the deep where no riches or fame

Or weapons protect you, and nobody honours your name?

Shall I take leave of my friends

And my beautiful native land,

Tears in my eyes

As my knees mark my final prayer in the sand?

King of the mysteries, will You set watch over me?

Christ of the mysteries, can I trust You on the sea?

Is that what my visions symbolised? Or was it the journey greater than all others, the final journey to the other side? And how will I face that which comes to us all? I who struggle with the concept of Heaven, let alone Hell; I who so love this world.

No answers came as I stared out into the blue.

bardsey pilgrimage 034 The Church of St. Hywyn, Aberdaron

The boat that took me and around ten others from Porth Meudwy was small but it was definitely not the boat from my vision. It was not wooden and it was yellow. Most of all though, it was far too fast and made too much noise. Still, after its engines had been cut and it drifted noiselessly into the island’s small harbour, I revelled in the crystal-clear waters and the sight of dozens of seals basking on the rocks. Upon alighting, after listening to the boatman’s short spiel on Bardsey’s past and present, I took a closer look at those seals, marvelling at such fine creatures which I had never seen wild before, but then, realising that I should delay it no further, I continued on to complete my pilgrimage.

bardsey pilgrimage 047 Seals basking on the rocks

Very little remains today of the Abbey of St. Mary, founded originally by St. Cadfan in 516, only the ruins of a mediaeval tower. But that tower has been fitted out and re-sanctified so that Mass may be said there and so it was that that was the place where I headed, and sitting on the tiny wooden bench inside, I said my final rosary of the journey. I gave thanks for all that I had learnt by recounting every step of the pilgrimage, lingering long over my experience in the lane, but I felt little. The truth was that my pilgrimage was not being completed here; I’d completed it the evening before in that non-place as a pair of swallows darted above my head. Now I had no more call ‘To be a pilgrim’ and instead I could be a tourist. After saying my prayers I got up and climbed Bardsey’s mountain, stopping off halfway for my lunch.

bardsey pilgrimage 049 


bardsey pilgrimage 050

The remains of the Abbey of St. Mary

The views from the top of Bardsey are incredible, not just in their beauty, but also their symbolism. You can see the Llŷn along which we’d walked, (including the twin peaks of Yr Eifl), then the wide sweep of Cardigan Bay to Wales’ other peninsula, where I had made my pilgrimage the year before, then across the Irish Sea, (somewhere on which Paul was sailing to his homeland), to that homeland itself, a misty grey line on the horizon, the only bumps on it the Wicklow Mountains, (where I once made the pilgrimage to St. Kevin’s hermitage at Glendalough), then spinning back round to Anglesey and the Llŷn once more. Here was the entire ancient Celtic World laid out before me like a map, and for the first time ever I saw the Irish Sea, not as an ocean that separates but as a lake which connected those places a millennia before when travel was much easier by boat than by land. And there in the middle, the lynchpin of it all, was Bardsey. Was it any wonder why the saints of old found that isle so blessed?

bardsey pilgrimage 052 Looking back whence I had come: The Llŷn from Bardsey with Yr Eifl in the distance

bardsey pilgrimage 065 Looking south towards St. David’s

And there perhaps I should have ended this chronicle except that God had one more little surprise in store for me. After descending the hill I decided to take a walk around the island but fearing the hour, I asked the time of a passing woman. She gave it to me and then said, “Haven’t we met before?” Sure that I had not seen this unknown Welsh lady before in my life, I was about to answer in the negative when she said, “About a month ago, you were in the service at Pennant Melangell and you came for tea with the vicar afterwards.”

“The family from Porthmadog?”

“Yes, the very same. We had a lovely day that day; we only went there by chance but it was as if God guided us for it did us good, we needed to go there. But what are you doing here?”

“I’m on a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage that I started at Pennant Melangell.”

“Well, God bless you and by the way, you have a lovely singing voice. It filled the church, we really enjoyed it, thanks!”

Well, praise indeed! But what a coincidence? Or was it? After all, what is it they always say about the Lord. He moves in mysterious ways, aye, that He truly does.

bardsey pilgrimage 085 Leaving Bardsey

Written September 2013

Poznań-Częstochowa-Łódź-East Midlands Airport whilst on a trip to the Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa

[1] The name of the island in Welsh, Ynys Enlli, means “The island in the currents”.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Pilgrimages: Across the Sound (Part 3)

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We’re a day early in posting this week as, due to all the festive fun, I’ll be away at a Christmas party tomorrow evening. But for now, let us go to Wales, to a lonely lane where my body finally gave up on me and St. Francis of all people came to the rescue.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Don’t forget to check out my V-log of this trip!

Links to all parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Days 1 & 2

Part 2: Day 3

Part 3: Day 4

Part 4: Day 5

Links to accounts of all my pilgrimages:

Pilgrimages: To the Holy Island

Pilgrimages: Nazareth in Norfolk

Pilgrimages: And Those Feet Did...

Pilgrimages: The Sacred Heart of Wales

Pilgrimages: Across the Sound

England-Cities-Area-Map nefyn

bardsey day 4

The Fourth Day

Starting off the next morning, I had an excess of energy due to a sound night’s sleep, a fine full breakfast and a long soak in a rather impressive Jacuzzi bath which apparently, is the kind of facility that one gets if one books four star.[1] We covered the first mile or so to the pretty little church at Edern in no time but the church was locked so we motored on along four miles or son of rather boring B-road until we reached Tudweiliog where the church was also closed, but thankfully, the shop and public toilets were both open. During that trek and afterwards, Paul and I discussed the Welsh language. In the Llŷn – and at Llangynog and Pennant Melangell – Welsh had very clearly been the first language and I never cease to be amazed at how well the Welsh have preserved their tongue in the face of the overwhelming onslaught of English which is, after all, not just the dominant local tongue, but indeed the global lingua franca. Paul too was impressed by its survival but also a little morose for his own people who, although so much more successful than the Welsh in asserting their political independence from Britain, have failed almost completely with regards to their language, which to him was a problem since, (in his opinion), perhaps the main defining factor of a nation is it having its own language.

After Tudweiliog we left the road and headed for the coast. At a delightful – and deserted – cove we ate the lunch that we’d purchased in the village shop and then continued south along the clifftops. Like our previous coastal walking experience, this was easier said than down, but unlike our expeditions near Trefor, at least we were now following a designated path. Nonetheless, every kilometre here felt like two on the road and my ankles and feet were soon complaining bitterly from the mauling that they were being subjected to as we strode along the narrow and uneven pathway and our rests began to grow more frequent.

bardsey pilgrimage 032 The cove where we lunched

We came upon a beautiful, wide and mercifully sandy beach (Traeth Penllech) and Paul suggested that we leave the cliff path to walk along the sands instead. It was wise advice for the going was definitely easier, slowed only by Paul’s propensity to stop and pet – and if possible converse with the owner of – every dog that we passed, be it a mangy mutt or pampered pedigree. To be honest, I found this a little annoying; I grew up in a house without dogs and then moved to the Far East where they’re often viewed as more food than friend, so my attitude towards dogs veers between indifference to a slight fear, but there was something wholesome and heartening in the way that Paul loves, reveres and makes time for any creature, human or otherwise. I just wish that I felt it, particularly as I am currently contemplating joining the Third Order of St. Francis, the saint most famous for being matey with animals.

Recognising our flagging energy, the exertions of the previous two days’ walking compounding the aches of today, we elected to take the shorter and easier inland route after Traeth Penllech and were rewarded for our choice by chancing upon a café at a caravan site where we drank a much welcome cup of tea and chatted to a couple from Mold. Then it was on again, but the rest had knocked me out of what was left of my stride and by now I was starting to struggle. We, (well, I, Paul was in a far better state), limped along the tiny lanes towards the hamlet of Pen-y-Graig and en route bought a painted pebble, one of several that a nine-year old girl had placed outside her house with a ‘For Sale’ sign, hoping to earn a little extra pocket money. Impressed by such business acumen in one so young and wanting to bring my son back a little something from my travels, I willingly parted with the 20p that she was asking and popped the ladybird pebble into my rucksack.

We reached Pen-y-Graig without further incident, my mind meditating over the Christ in my favourite folk song, ‘Bread and Fishes’ who meets the unnamed traveller en route from Glastonbury,[2] but after the hamlet had been attained every step became a real struggle. Our campsite was still three and a half miles distant and yet Paul noticed how I was now limping quite noticeably. Nonetheless, I continued, the mile that followed feeling like the four to Tudweiliog, but then finally, by a turn in the road, I knew that I could do no more and, by a gatepost, sat down, my body telling me that it would do no more. “It is for the best,” said Paul and wearily I agreed, as he continued onwards, promising to return with my car.

At first I rested, eyes closed, weary in mind, spirit, but mostly body. I have long realised the importance of exercising the former two regularly and as such both recovered quickly and easily, but as for the latter that has always been the poor relation, the one that got forgotten and I knew that its recovery would not be so swift.

After I had rested a little I opened my eyes and thought. I was angry; I had failed to reach Aberdaron and instead I had fallen short. I had a boat booked the following morning to take me to Bardsey, but did I deserve to catch it, failure that I was? My mind vacillated between two voices in my head. The first told me to not go to Bardsey now and instead to return to this place sometime in the future and then complete the final five miles or so, (two and a half to the campsite, then two and a half more to the harbour), crossing to the island then after I had truly earned the right to go there, the pilgrimage properly completed in full. But then the other voice disagreed with this; surely the point of pilgrimage is not the destination but the journey it argued and if you do it that way, yes, you will have completed all the miles on the map, but you will only be accompanied by the physical pains and spiritual meditations of five miles of easy walking. Now you are attaining Bardsey, then you should only be reaching it. Unable to decide I got out my rosary and recounted the miles and travails up to this point and then I lay back and let my eyes drift over that place, a non-place in fact, neither here nor there, a mere gateway by a kink in a nameless lane between two unimportant hamlets.

And then it happened.

I noticed the place. For the first time on the entire pilgrimage, I actually saw. Like Saul in the house on the Street Called Straight, it was as if scales fell from my eyes. I saw the tall grasses above me and realised how beautiful they were, how insanely, incredibly beautiful. On our trip we had passed millions, countless millions of blades of grass but up until then I had not seen a single one of them. There was a cricket in those grasses too; I couldn’t see him but I could hear his joyful song. And my how beautiful it was! I drank it in and then turned to the perfect grey sky above my head across which two birds flew, two swallows looping and loving together in the heavens above my head. Love filled my heart and music was on my lips; the words of the song by Donovan inspired by the prayer of one of the greatest of all the saints:

Brother Sun and Sister Moon

I seldom see you seldom hear your tune

Preoccupied with selfish misery

Brother Wind and Sister Air

Open my eyes to visions pure and fair

That I may see the glory around me.

I am God's creature, of Him I am part

I feel His love awakening my heart.

Brother Sun and Sister Moon

I now do see you, I can hear your tune

So much in love with all that I survey.

At first the words were but a whisper on my lips, then softly sung, then shouted out, then I was up, dancing and spinning barefoot in the middle of that lane in that non-place like some sort of holy fool, the two swallows above me darting and dancing, happy, yes, happy, so much in love with all that I surveyed! I danced and I danced and I laughed and I loved, thanking God for pilgrimage, for nature, for life. And when I had finished I sat and wrote these words:

I am on the lane from Glastonbury and the Holy Family are coming the other way.

I am one of the disciples lying down to sleep in the fields of Judea.

I am with Mary and Joseph resting by the roadside on the way to Bethlehem.

I am with the dying man, waiting for the Good Samaritan to return.

I am with St. Francis and his brothers as they pause to break bread on their journey to Rome.

I am with St. Chad as he eats by a hedgerow on a journey around his diocese.

I am with St. Beuno as he preaches by a drystone wall, bringing God to his people.

I am with the numberless pilgrims of yore as they plod the path to Bardsey.

I am me, today, surrounded by the Glory of God.

bardsey pilgrimage 033 Non-place

Day 5

[1] We booked four star because there was nowhere else.

[2] See my travelogues Nazareth in Norfolk and And Those Feet Did for explanation as to why that song is so dear to me.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

V-log 7: Crowland, Lincolnshire

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As promised, albeit a week or so late, here’s my V-log of my short visit to Crowland in Lincolnshire, a rather pretty little Fens town with a rather impressive half-ruined church, Croyland Abbey, (the town used to be called Croyland). I went there because of St. Guthlac, a rather interesting chap who I came across when writing up my travel guide to Sacred Staffordshire which will be posted on this site sometime in the future. Guthlac was a Mercian nobleman, a fearless warrior who, horrified by what he saw in battle, gave it all up to become a hermit. A message for today perhaps?
Anyway, enjoy the pretty town of Crowland and please, if you’re in the area, visit it yourself; it’s well worth it!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Check out all my V-logs!

Friday, 13 December 2013

Pilgrimages: Across the Sound (Part 2)

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Well into December now and Christmas is almost upon us. This week I continue my pilgrimage across Wales towards the holy island of Bardsey. Today’s offering sees me believing that I’m in some 17th century allegorical tale whilst Paul gets concerned for my health near the top of Hill Difficulty.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Don’t forget to check out the V-log of this trip!

Links to all parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Days 1 & 2

Part 2: Day 3

Part 3: Day 4

Part 4: Day 5

Links to accounts of all my pilgrimages:

Pilgrimages: To the Holy Island

Pilgrimages: Nazareth in Norfolk

Pilgrimages: And Those Feet Did...

Pilgrimages: The Sacred Heart of Wales

Pilgrimages: Across the Sound

The Third Day

The best laid plans of mice and men…

Prior to coming out I’d done my homework. There were two ancient pilgrimage routes to Bardsey: one along the north coast of the Llŷn from Clynnog Fawr and the other along the south coast from Pwllheli. Both ended at Aberdaron, or to be more precise, Porth Meudwy from which the mediaeval pilgrims would take the boat for the short yet treacherous journey across the Bardsey Sound to the island itself.

I’d decided to take the northern route and so the plan was to stay near to Aberdaron, take a bus to Pwllheli and then another onto Clynnog Fawr from where we’d walk back, overnighting in a bed and breakfast at Nefyn, halfway along the route. I’d studiously researched and then printed out the bus times and made sure that we got to Aberdaron a full twenty minutes before the bus departed, so we got a bacon bap and a coffee from the delightful little bakery next-door and then waited.

And waited.

Ten minutes after the bus was due to come, I wondered what was up. I went to the stop and yes, there it was in black and white: Monday to Saturday, (it was a Monday) there was a bus leaving at 0745. So where was it?

Then it dawned.

It was a Monday, yes, but it was also a Bank Holiday. And there was no service on Sundays and Bank Holidays the timetable declared in both English and Welsh. “Looks like I’m driving to Clynnog Fawr then,” said Paul.

And that he duly did.

Bardsey Island was a major pilgrimage destination during the Middle Ages. Dubbed the ‘Rome of Britain’, thousands made their way there, over mountains and bogs, before finally braving the treacherous sound to reach the island of twenty-thousand saints whose monastery was founded by St. Cadfan in 516 and sanctified by holy personages ever since as “the holy place of burial for all the bravest and best in the land”. So blessed was it that the Pope declared that three trips to Bardsey equalled one to Rome and bards called it “the land of indulgences, absolution and pardon, the road to Heaven, and the gate to Paradise”. Consequently, it was a major pilgrimage destination until the Reformation and on the northern route to it, no stop was more important than the church at Clynnog Fawr for that place had holy credentials of its own, being the site of a miraculous healing well and the tomb of St. Beuno. So where better to start our own pilgrimage then, than at Clynnog Fawr’s majestic Church of St. Beuno?

clynnog fawr The Church of St. Beuno at Clynnog Fawr: the tomb of the saint is in the separate chapel to the left

I’d come across this saint before. Beuno was the uncle of St. Winifred whose healing well at Holywell on the North Wales Coast is dubbed ‘The Lourdes of Wales’ and attracts thousands of pilgrims annually. The legend says that it was Beuno who miraculously restored the virgin back to life after the evil Prince Caradoc decapitated her after she refused to yield her virginity to him, before then calling down the wrath of Heaven upon Caradoc himself who was promptly swallowed into the ground. But St. Beuno was well-loved across the northern regions of Wales for more than just his role in Winifred’s tale; he evangelised the entire region before retiring to his monastery at Clynnog Fawr where, after experiencing a vision, he passed away in the company of his monks. That is why Clynnog Fawr boasts such a spectacular church – a relic of the 15th century when pilgrimage and veneration of the saints was at its height – and the old saint’s chest is still on display. I prayed the rosary at the light and airy altar of Beuno’s church and then we set off on our journey.

bardsey pilgrimage 016a By the Chest of St. Beuno

The first four miles or so were dull and monotonous along the newly-built road to Trefor. The ancient pilgrims took a more inland path as the area was marshland in their day but we knew just how much ground we had to cover and so followed the more direct route. As we marches a rhythm was established and I mulled things over in my mind, not just the pilgrimage but also a forthcoming job interview. Over the previous year I had grown increasingly unhappy at work due to not feeling challenged sufficiently and the adoption of a managerial style which I felt did not have the complex needs of our, often very vulnerable, students (and staff) at heart. So it was that I’d applied for work in a sector that was new to me and that raised many questions: Did God wish me to go in this new direction? If I got the job, would I cope, or, equally important, if I did not, how would I cope then with the disappointment? Then I took advantage of being on the trip with a good and trusted friend and did a dry run of my presentation with Paul. Thankfully, he liked it, but suggested some improvements which I then tried to incorporate.

Trefor is not referred to on any of the original pilgrimage routes because it is essentially a rather new place, built in the 19th century to serve the large quarries on Yr Eifl above the town. Not having a map of this section of the walk, (our OS of the Llyn started just south of the village), we made do with rough pilgrim maps that were not really fit for purpose and found ourselves walking through a National Trust property to the sea. At first I wondered as to why the National Trust has bothered to acquire such a piece of land as it looked just like a normal field when we entered but as we walked it transformed into a beautiful fern-covered valley before ending at the clifftops from where a stunning view was commanded. We then took the coastal path for about half a mile until something very unexpected happened. By a pile of stones that I suspect were Neolithic, the path abruptly ended at a sheer cliff face.

“Not impressed with this Wales Coastal Path,” I said to Paul.

“Maybe we should have gone down along the beach?” he suggested.

The idea seemed a good one, (certainly, there didn’t seem to be any other way to go), so we scrambled down the cliff to said beach, except that once there our problems were far from over. This was no usual beach you see; it was stony and the stones were as big as dining tables. Cone could not walk along such a beach; instead one had to jump from boulder to boulder.

This we did, determinedly, laboriously, sweat streaming from our brows and plastering our backs. What kind of hell was this? I looked before me and saw only a seemingly endless slough of giant-sized pebbles with what looked like an impassable cliff on the horizon,[1] whilst to my right lay the tank grey sea and to my left a steep mountainside strewn with boulders and the detritus of a century of quarrying. The scene which, only half an hour or so before, had appeared so wildly beautiful, now appeared like a vision of Hell with us marauded on the slopes of Mordor, Lilliputians in a demonic realm of oversized – and dangerous – boulders. All ways seemed impassable and yet, well, we were men and men don’t give up! We carried onwards, not a word said.

But some ten minutes after that I stopped, sat on one of those Brobdingnagian pebbles and waited for Paul to catch up. “ We need to go back,” I said. He did not disagree but similarly, did not like to agree. Going back was failure and we were men, stubborn men. But the way forward was impossible, even an idiot like me could see that now; the headland beyond the beach ended in a sheer cliff into the sea and the mountains were unclimbable without equipment. A return back from whence we had come was no welcome prospect, clamouring over boulders, and then scaling a cliff let alone that harder mental task of admitting that we had made a mistake. “We could try going on, perhaps…?” suggested Paul, but in our hearts we both knew the answer. We turned back and started to retrace our steps.

Pilgrimage is there to teach us, pilgrimage always surprises, but what was the lesson to be learnt here? For some reason my mind kept returning to John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ which I’d read years before after picking up a copy in the local synagogue (!), and in particular the episode of the Slough of Despond came to me:

‘Now I saw in my dream, that just as they had ended this talk, they drew nigh to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain: and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was Despond. Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and Christian, because of the burden that was on his back began to sink in the mire.’

So this was our Slough of Despond, a rocky rather than a muddy one, but a dangerous slough nonetheless. And its purpose? Well, like Christian and Pliable, we too had been heedless, but perhaps Stubbornness was our travelling companion, maybe Pride also? Both Paul and I admitted that we’d had internal doubts about the path as far back as the clifftops – for a recognised, established and maintained coastal path, it had been awfully done, and when it had ended in a sheer cliff face then that should have been it. But no, proud and stubborn as we both were, independently, rather than voice our doubts, we’d carried on. We are men; we can do it; who needs a proper path anyway? But sometimes we can’t do it, we are as fallible as anyone else and the way was impassable for good reason, for it was not the Wales Coastal Path, (which around that headland ventures inland), and instead, by mistake, we had merely stumbled onto a track to an ancient pile of rubble. On the boulder-strewn beach from Hell we had both been taught then first lesson of our pilgrimage. Thankfully, unlike Christian in the book, my travelling companion was Paul and not Pliable, who at that point gives up and heads back home to the City of Destruction.

Slough of Despond Helped out of the Slough of Despond

And once that lesson had sunk in, I was thankful and the words of Bunyan’s only hymn, (which I had copied down from the display board in Clynnog Fawr that morning), came to me:

‘Who would true valour see

Let him come hither

One here will constant be

Come wind, come weather

There’s no discouragement

Shall make him once relent

His first avowed intent

To be a pilgrim’

And as if to reward us for learning our lesson and to give us a sign for future travails, (which we did not recognise),[2] on a whim back in Trefor, I elected to take a different road and came across by chance, a natural spring. Our water supplies had all been drunk on the beach, so we eagerly refilled our bottles and refreshed ourselves before moving onwards.

bardsey pilgrimage 017 The spring in Trefor

And it was a good thing that we did for the next section of the route began to lead uphill at a rather alarming gradient. I stormed up determined to conquer this hill, but the brow of it never came, instead the road just went on and on. We rested, then walked, rested then walked, the rests becoming longer and the walks shorter, until it dawned on us at the one of the rests that the enormous mountain ahead of us, well, there was no way round it. Yes indeed, we were climbing Hill Difficulty!

The mountain was Yr Eifl[3] and it was one of the biggest obstacles that the pilgrims had to negotiate in mediaeval times. It had two peaks with a very slight dip between the two through which our path passed. The latter stages of the climb revealed a new kind of Hell for me, different to the one on the beach. There the challenge was to defeat pride and turn back; here we both knew that there was no turning back, we were on the right path and to proceed the mountain had to be conquered. For an experienced mountain, Yr Eifl is probably a mere walk in the park but for someone as out-of-shape as me it was an endurance test; an endurance test that I very almost failed. In the latter stages I resorted to counting the telegraph poles on the line running beside us; I’d walk the distance between two and then rest, walk and rest. Still shy of the summit, I found that I couldn’t even do that and I collapsed on the heather to recover. It was the wise thing to do for Paul later admitted that the level of my wheezing had begun to worry him. Aerobic exercise, (e.g. distance walking), I was used to but anaerobic exercise, (e.g. hill walking), I was not.

And so I collapsed and so we stayed there on that purple mountainside and after my body had begun to recover I opened my eyes and began to appreciate the beauty of the spot which commanded fine views north-west to Caernafon and Anglesey, mist on the slopes of Snowdonia, all drenched in an ambience of absolute peace. We rested and read awhile and then eventually – that mountain mist looking like it was getting nearer – we moved on. It was still hard, but it was doable and within no time at all we had conquered Yr Eifl.

bardsey pilgrimage 021 Hill Difficulty: The way back: Trefor to Clynnog Fawr from Yr Eifl

bardsey pilgrimage 023 Hill Difficulty: The way forward: Graig Ddu covered by mists

After which it was all downhill. Literally. We walked along the top of the chasm of Graig Ddu, a spot of extreme beauty with the mists covering and then revealing the pine-clad slopes across the chasm from us in a scene which reminded me of the Japan Alps, and then it was through fields – including one with a rather scary-looking bull whom we steered well clear of – for several miles until we dropped down into a hollow and stepped into the sanctuary of Pistyll Church.

The Church of St. Beuno is one of the original churches along the Bardsey pilgrimage route and it would have welcomed those who traipsed that way throughout the Middle Ages. Founded by the same early evangelist of North Wales as Clynnog Fawr. Although the present structure is a rebuild, dating from the 12th century and not the 7th, it conveys the atmosphere of those early years of Christianity in Wales more than any other church I visited on the trip. It is possibly the most beautiful church that I have ever stepped inside; it is simple, bare stone walls and a floor strewn with straw, candles punctuating the darkness, an inscription in Welsh above the altar and it is open for all pilgrims with free drinking water supplied in bottles from the local spring. After the Slough of Despond and Hill Difficulty, the rosary that I said knelt in a pew in this glimpse of Heaven on earth was profound.

bardsey pilgrimage 026 Pistyll Church

Interestingly though, we are not all the same. I left the building to find Paul sat on a gravestone looking out to sea. He’d liked the church alright, but preferred it out there, in the open, gazing out onto the same endless ocean that had been his companion on numberless visits to the caravan that his parents had once owned near to Youghal on Ireland’s southern coast.

Just outside the church we met two more walkers. They weren’t pilgrims that day but had walked the route in the past for sacred reasons as well as several other pilgrimage routes including the Saints’ Way in Cornwall which I was most interested to learn about and parts of the Road to Santiago which Paul had also walked a piece of the summer before.

Perhaps understandably, Paul talked a lot about his trip along the Way. He’d found it a powerful and moving experience, particularly meeting other pilgrims – both sacred and secular – from across the globe, but he’d done it with his dad whose idea of a pilgrimage was quite different to Paul’s and this had caused tension. We talked at great length as to how different people seek – and find – very different things in religion. Some look for change in the future, others confirmation of the past, and whilst no resolution was ever reached concerning his particular issues, I think that the conversations helped.

The last few miles into Nefyn were easy-going and although our halt at Pistyll gave me a boost for the first mile following the church, after that it became hard and the difference between the aerobic and anaerobic exercise became clear. The anaerobic climb up Yr Eifl had been hell at the time, but the recovery was surprisingly quick; at not time did the long, slow plod of aerobic exercise become so difficult that I had to stop and recover my breath, but the footsore weariness, slowly and unexpectedly became worse until as we entered the village, each step had become a struggle.

On the edge of Nefyn we passed some council houses outside of which some kids were playing amongst fishing nets left out to dry. It was nice to see that fishing still is a viable occupation in an area where tourism is so prominent, but a little sad that the modern practitioners of the art which has sustained the region for millennia, that fundamental task of bringing in food for the table can only afford to dwell in the humblest of the community’s dwellings when those who do less necessary work live in mansions.

We paused briefly at Nefyn’s ancient church, but it was locked and so we limped on towards the centre of the village and the only open hostelry – ‘Y Folt’ (‘The Vault’).

‘Y Folt’ was, without any doubt whatsoever, the worst that I have ever set foot in. A cross between a youth hostel club and the worst kind of wine bar, it was an ale drinker’s hell with only bland lager on tap. But for us, even that was welcome and so we sat within its horrendously modern and tasteless confines, waited for ten minutes until the landlord returned from wherever it was that he’d gone to, ordered a pint each and then amused ourselves with the nineties pop videos that were showing on the TV. Impious as the thoughts may have been, my abiding memory of ‘Y Folt’ is of being reminded of just how attractive Nicole Appleton of the All Saints really was.

Having recovered a little, we then had another problem caused, (as, alas, so many problems are), by my lack of foresight. I’d forgotten to bring the name and address of our B&B. However, I remembered from my phone call with the proprietor that it was newly-opened that year and four star and thus, in a small place like Nefyn, well, there can’t be too many places like that now, can there?

I gave these facts to the landlord of ‘Y Folt’ and he had a chat with the woman in the shop next door and they directed me to the right place. Except that it wasn’t the right place, but the owner of this place knew where was and so he called up our host for the night and she came around to collect us which, shattered as we were, we were both extremely grateful for.

Day 4

[1] Trwyn y Gorlech

[2] Having been reminded of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress, I should perhaps have remembered this passage also: ‘Now I understand that they all continued on till they came to the foot of a Hill, at the bottom of which was a spring. At this same place two other ways joined with the straight way coming from the Wicket-gate; one turned to the left hand and the other to the right at the bottom of the Hill. However, the narrow way continued straight up the Hill, its name being Difficulty.’

[3] Its English name, ‘The Rivals’ is based on a mispronunciation of the Welsh name but is also fitting since it has two distinct – and thus rival – peaks.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Pilgrimages: Across the Sound (Part 1)

world-map llangelynin


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!


Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Days 1 & 2

Part 2: Day 3

Part 3: Day 4

Part 4: Day 5

Links to accounts of all my pilgrimages:

Pilgrimages: To the Holy Island

Pilgrimages: Nazareth in Norfolk

Pilgrimages: And Those Feet Did...

Pilgrimages: The Sacred Heart of Wales

Pilgrimages: Across the Sound

England-Cities-Area-Map penant melangell

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.[1]

melangell pub sign The Legend of St. Melangell as depicted on the sign for the Tanat Valley Inn

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

bardsey pilgrimage 002 Commencing the journey: Llangynog with the Church of St. Cynog and the Tanat Valley Inn in the background

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).

bardsey pilgrimage 005 The road to Pennant Melangell

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[2] and around countless other holy sites in the Near and Middle East; age-old symbols of prayer and faith.

bardsey pilgrimage 006 To scare away birds or inform us that we were entering holy ground?

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.

2013 mixed bag 050 The Church of St. Melangell

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.

2013 mixed bag 053 The Shrine of St. Melangell

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.

2013 mixed bag 054 The Cell y Bedd: simple sanctity

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.

Day 3

[1] Incidentally, this was not Prince Brochwel’s only brush with sanctity: his mother was St. Tudlwystl and his son was St. Tysilio.

[2] See my essay ‘Razgrad and Isperikh’ and my travelogue ‘Balkania’.