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”.

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