A Pilgrim in Wales

By Patricia Lee Lewis.
Published in Hampshire Life Magazine.

In the ancient Celtic tradition of pilgrimage to sacred places, Erna Evans is going to Skomer Island.

We sit across a table on the train from Cardiff, strangers speeding along Wales’ south coast. As she talks about surviving the Holocaust, marrying an English doctor, becoming a widow, her eyes are as keen as a herring gull’s.

She calls herself a traveling housewife, and goes by train or bus every day to the cliff-walk along Wales’ edges, or to one of the small British islands, exploring as she can. Her swollen legs are made worse by Wales’ wet weather, so walking is hard; but she says the secret to life is not to mind the rain-and then every day is a good day. As I say goodbye and get off the train in Tenby, it begins to drizzle.


I am also in Wales as a pilgrim. I have read of the hundreds of standing stones, of megalithic structures that pre-date the pyramids, of remains of ancient Druid and pre-Christian communities, of early Celtic Christian shrines, even of King Arthur, believed to have been a 6th century Welshman. But, really, I have no idea what to expect.

As quickly as the drizzle has come, it stops, leaving the hill I walk from the Tenby train station to the Ivy Bank Bed and Breakfast in sunshine. Coastal towns are lucky that way.

Tenby’s cobbled streets wind to the town front, high above its harbor, along colorful, attached townhouses, churches and small shops built right into 13th century stone walls. If you squint your eyes, you are in the Middle Ages.

The sun is strong the next morning when I meet Terry John, my guide today to sacred sites along the pilgrims’ route, a scholar and artist with passionate interest in the history of West Wales, especially Pembrokeshire. He writes about its mysterious standing stones, is an expert on the tradition of the religious pilgrimages to St. Davids that began in the 6th Century, and has the merry eyes of a man who loves his work.

Wales is a small country, roughly 170 miles long and 55 miles wide, with 3 million people, mostly in the south, and with borders on England and the Celtic and Irish Seas. I will be traveling the length of its coast. Welsh trains and busses are reliable and pleasant, but to get to remote sites-well, I am grateful Terry has a car.

Driving through farmland, hedgerows and a scattering of houses, we head for St. Davids via the tiny village of Gumfreston. Terry talks of St. David, the patron saint of Wales, whose birth in the 6th century into a royal Welsh line was foretold by both Christian and Druid priests. David established his monastery in Mynyw, a land that was sacred to its Pagan inhabitants. He and his followers crushed the reigning Druid chieftain, Boia, officially defeating the old religion.

St. David’s most famous act was denouncing the Celtic Christian monk, Pelagius, whose views were closer to the Celtic Pagan belief that all of nature is divine.

Behind the Gumfreston Church, bird songs, shimmering hawthorne leaves and the gentle sounds of running water lead to three “eternal” springs thought by the earliest Christians to be a holy well. At Easter in medieval times, pilgrims came to holy wells to drink the water and pray to be healed. They often brought a bent iron pin as an offering. Iron was regarded as a wondrous thing by earlier Pagan Celts, hence its value as a gift to the gods. This belief in the magical, mysterious properties of iron lingered long into the Christian age and iron was often used to ward off evil.

The cult of David spread into southeast Wales and England, beginning the long tradition of pilgrimage to St. Davids by those in need of healing or gaining credit toward salvation. Two pilgrimages to St. Davids were said to equal one to Rome.

Pagan Celts viewed a whole multitude of gods and goddesses as kin, and strengthened ties with them by offering gifts. As family, they were presumed to give gifts in return. The otherworld overlapped ours, seeping especially through its waters, so wells and springs were entrances to the underworld, where Celts, and subsequently, Christians, would leave offerings.

While the early Celtic Christians incorporated aspects of nature mysticism and religious practices that preceded them, Pagan beliefs and practices were not peacefully adopted by all Christians. The Reformation aimed at ripping out every lively Pagan root. Inside the gray stone church, a riot of colorful paintings meant to instruct illiterate people in the stories of the faith were plastered over by Puritans.

We leave the Gumfreston Church and come to the Carew Cross, one of the finest 6th century stone crosses in Wales,and a stop on the pilgrims’ route. The “endless knot” pattern carved along its slightly crooked length is the symbol of eternity attributed by some to the Picts of ancient Britain. Beyond is the village of Llawhaden, and the Road of Song, where pilgrims walking from the east would first glimpse the church tower and start to sing.

We stop for lunch at the Picton Inn, just above an invisible line that divides Pembrokeshire. Below the line the culture is Anglicized, a result of the Norman Conquest; above, traditional Welsh is more often spoken, and “Wales” is Cymru on all signs. The men in this pub speak the first Welsh I’ve heard. It is a 3000 year-old language, and it sounds to my ear like a rich mixture of German, Italian and Scots.

As we pass pairs of giant standing stones which were placed about 5000 BC in what are now hay fields, I am reminded of how ancient this ceremonial relationship of humans with divine forces of nature is, and how little of it we can know. Unknown even to Terry, my Welsh guide, just east of us near Radnor, archeologists are uncovering a mysterious 4,700 year-old temple, the largest Stone Age structure ever found in western Europe. They will find that it is 30 times the size of Stonehenge-older, and made of wood.

We pull the car into a farm lane and walk to a sheep enclosure on the Tremaenhir (Three Stones) Farm, and Terry points out the stones, now only two, standing among trees and vines. They were probably aligned with the setting and/or rising of planetary bodies and may have been seen as channels through which the power of the sun or moon was drawn. Larger stone structures holding human remains may have been viewed as receptacles for the spirits of the dead.

About a mile out of St. Davids center is the shrine to St. David’s mother, St. Non, who was raped and impregnated, as apparently were many devout young women of her day. Pilgrims seek healing at her well, next to the stone ruins of David’s birthplace. An enormous raven walks through the bright green grass like a priest, black light glittering off its back.

At the pasture’s edge, high above the sea, is the cliff-walk Erna Evans spoke of so fondly. It is the National Parkland footpath that extends 185 miles along Wales’ southwest coast. Brilliant sea pinks and great blossoming clumps of yellow gorse edge the path where walkers hike for days at a time, staying at bed and breakfast inns along the way.

We arrive at St. Davids, Wales’ smallest city. David’s monastic community burned to the ground in 645 A.D., leaving no trace, and several subsequent cathedrals were destroyed by Vikings. Finally, in 1181, the present cathedral was built and St. Davids quickly became one of the most important shrines in Britain. Today, thousands of pilgrims each year arrive at St. Davids looking a lot like tourists.

With its soaring, purple granite stones, the cathedral, many times restored, is a stately, medieval edifice built on a marsh. A brook runs under it and the whole building moves slowly outward. It is a place of earthquakes.

Inside the serene, vaulted halls, we find Nona Rees, who writes lively histories of the life of St. David and of the cathedral, including its “Misericords.” Misiricordia is Latin for ‘mercy.’ These small, hinged wooden seats in the choir, decorated with bold carvings almost like cartoons of medieval life, were a concession to aged and infirm priests who stood sometimes for hours. They have a small, projecting ledge under them so that when the seat was raised the occupant could sit while appearing to stand.

It is evening when Terry delivers me to “The Old Courthouse” Bed and Breakfast Inn just across from the bus stop in Trefin. Next morning, everyone on the bus smiles at me. Smiling must be a national Welsh trait; and I smile, too, as we ride along Cardigan Bay’s low, curving road to the sea.

Laurence Main is waiting at the Tourist Information Centre in Newport. He will be my guide to the Welsh coast from Newport to Machynlleth. It is quickly apparent that this is an original man. Despite his Oxford degree and publications, local people affectionately call Laurence “The Wild Man of the Mountains.” His full white beard, shaggy hair and broad, crooked-toothed grin may be why. But, as I learn, he comes and goes from the woods and mountaintops as one whose home is there. His spirit is as wild as his dreams; which, I find out, is what he specializes in.

We stash my gear in a tent before we begin what becomes a ten mile, eight hour scramble over hills, stone walls, stiles, mostly in mud, along streams and wildflower-lined lanes, and through old trees green with moss. We stop at last for a picnic in a field of standing stones and Laurence teaches me to dowse the energy lines of the earth, which he calls “ley lines.” I watch, amazed, as the copper rods I hold as I walk the field cross by themselves at certain points. They plot a line that makes straight for Carningli, the sacred Peak of the Angels we can see from here. Laurence knew they would do that.

Laurence claims to have spent over 700 nights on Carningli since 1995, and to have taken dozens of people there to “dream.” There is an early Celtic tradition that the earth remembers everything, perhaps accounting for what Laurence calls “dreams of place,” in which the land speaks through the dreamer. He wants me to stay on Carningli tonight. I am a bit apprehensive, but why else am I here, if not to experience the land directly. I’ll think about it, I say.

At Nevern, tucked among ancient trees, we find the famous Nevern Cross at the small, stone chapel of St. David’s friend, St. Brynach, who reportedly spent three years in meditation on and around Carningli. He is said to have communicated with Rhiannon, the Welsh horse goddess of the underworld who, according to local lore, resides there.

The path travels through Ty Canol, a jewel of the National Nature Reserve. It is an ancient sessile oak wildland, each trunk, branch and twig enveloped in rare velvet-green mosses. Trees were sacred to the early Celts, and if there is a place where faery folk make themselves known, surely this is it. Beyond the woods, we find the womb-like Brynach’s Cave, also known as the Cave of the Dark Goddess. There seems to be no place that does not speak of something beyond itself.

The muddy pilgrims’ path leads us to Pentre Ifan, the huge, mountain-top, stone burial monument in Nevern, where I stand under the giant cap stone, and hardly need the rods to find the ley lines that intersect this powerful place.

By now, my feet hurt. But I have decided to stay the night on Carningli and, so we return to Laurence’s tent, pack up sleeping bags, water, crackers, binoculars, camera, film, and my windbreaker; but not, regrettably, my long johns.

Carningli is a mountain of volcanic rock. An old tramway makes an emerald aisle up the east side of the mountain, followed by foot paths through heather, gorse and sheep. Laurence asks Rhiannon, the goddess of the mountain, to bless us on this journey.

As we approach the top, we walk more slowly, not only because I am tired, but we are now in the presence of a palpable energy. It is most intense on top of the mountain along what looks like a great, reclining form, shaped of piled stones. Laurence calls this shape Rhiannon, and her feet, knees, thighs, pregnant belly, crossed arms and hands, breasts, neck, face, head and her hair, thrown wildly back, are now clearly visible.

We are near the top of the mountain, at the navel of the goddess. This is where we will sleep tonight, out of the wind. I can see where we walked today; everywhere, the mountain has seemed to follow us with interested, kindly eyes.

On one side of Carningli, the sun is setting over the Irish Sea; on the other, the full moon is rising. The sky is otherwise empty except for the sharp, dark edge of the Preseli Hills opposite us-the mountains where the great, blue stones of Stone Henge were gathered.

Dark comes on. We spread sleeping bags and crawl in, flashlights ready. I, fully clothed in coat, jacket, hood, and double socks, am freezing. Laurence, in tee shirt and thin sweat shirt, claims he’s perfectly warm. The wind is mild for a mountain, but the moon rises clear as a winter moon, though this is the first of May. I watch through slits in my sleeping bag as the moon advances up the sky and begins her slide down the other side. I sleep only a little; and think I am not dreaming, but I hear voices on the wind, and all night, I try to understand them.

Yesterday, Laurence talked of sacred birds and how a cuckoo once appeared to him as he set off on a personal quest. I sit between stones in the sun on the east side of Rhiannon’s breast, and watch as a raven calls, looking sideways, directly at me.

Laurence is disappointed that I can’t remember having any dreams, but he assures me the land has spoken. At Aberystwyth, he puts me on the train pointed toward mid-coast Wales and gives me a copy of one of his walking guides. I promise, someday, to use it.

The train pulls into Machynlleth around 4:00, and within minutes, I am taking a hot shower at Maenllwyd, the comfortable bed and breakfast home of Nigel and Margaret Vince. As I wander refreshed and exhilarated around the curving streets and stone shops of this engaging town of craft and art galleries, theatres and a famous free-standing, landmark clock, the night on Carningli seems like a dream I must work hard to remember.

The next morning, I find an Internet cafŽ-(they are everywhere these days, don’t bother to take your laptop except to the wildest wilds). I check my email from home, and ask directions to Celtica, the educational and cultural center which takes a kind of Disneyland approach to Celtic history. But people of all ages will learn that the Greeks gave Celts their name, which means “barbarian;” that Celtic women were warriors, tribal leaders, and blacksmiths who worked with the secrets of life; and that the Welsh people have long experienced themselves as endangered, their extinction no longer threatened by the sword but by assimilation into English culture, politics and economics. There is powerful evidence of their perseverance. The victory cry, Yma O Hyd, rings in word and song throughout Celtica. Yma O Hyd, We are still here!

The train north to Criccieth follows the shore, stopping briefly at Llwyngwril, which is so so beautiful, I want to get off and live a new life. A man and his dog get aboard just in time, the man playing mouth harp and pennywhistle, the dog singing, until they leave us in Talsarnau.

We come into Criccieth a few minutes late, and when a golfer at the pub next to the train station learns I have missed the one bus, he insists that he take me to my lodgings at the Bron Eifion Country House Hotel. It is worth getting there. One woman, learning of my interest in Welsh sacred sites, asks that I contact her good friend, a Bard in the Druid Order. I say, “Yma O Hyd,” and she smiles.

It is ironic that I should hear of contemporary Druids here. I am by now close to Anglesey, an island in the lee of Snowdonia at the northernmost tip of Wales. While Druids survived in Ireland and Northern Scotland, where Druid Bards kept the old stories and songs alive well into the present era, Anglesey was the last stronghold of Druids in Wales. In 60 A.D., Roman soldiers massacred all of them.

It takes a good map, and a willingness to turn around, to find Anglesey’s ancient stone monuments. Bryn Celli Ddu Burial Chamber (“The Mound in the Dark Grove”) is marked by a modest sign next to a treeless cow pasture. A grassy mound rises a distance from the road, and, as Eirlys Thomas, my guide from the Wales Tourist Board who was raised in the countryside, herds a cow and calf in front of us, we walk the short way to the Chamber. It is quiet here, where sheep watch with strange eyes, skylarks soar and sing, and the stones shelter the ancient dark.

Bryn Celli Ddu is one of the best-known stone burial chambers in Wales. What we can see of it was built about 4000 years ago on top of an earlier ritual enclosure which still sets it apart from its surroundings. It’s like a cave pushed up from the earth. At its opening stands a replica of the renowned “patterned stone,” with its zigzag and spiral markings clear. I stoop to enter, bending to touch the packed, red earth floor. The entrance is narrow and long, covered by stone slabs and sod, and opens into a higher chamber of about 7 feet, like a womb. A nearly circular stone pillar stands inside it like the trunk of a tree without its crown, holding nothing.

At Barclodiad-y-Gawres (the Apron of the Giantess), a huge burial and ceremonial chamber resting on the edge of the sea, beach sand quickly gives way to rich and fertile red earth. Angelsey is known in Welsh as Mo^n Mam Cumru, Mother of Wales, for in times of low yield of grain elsewhere, it has served as the food basket for the whole country. No wonder the Druids held out here the longest!
The small bridge over Trearddur Bay takes us to Holyhead on Holy Island, a popular seaside village. Beyond it, the late Neolithic village of Ty Mawr, meaning Big House, slopes upward just behind Holyhead Mountain’s famous bird sanctuary of South Stack. South Stack is a “maritime heathland,” a habitat now scarce in Britain, and the peregrine, stone chat, limnet, razorbill, puffin, guillermot, chough and raven all make their homes here. Below, nests spread like polka dots on the 400 foot cliffs, and a red sea kayak makes its way across calm waters.

2,500 years ago, Ty Mawr’s occupants overlooked the sea from square and round stone huts, one or two of which may have been “beehive” sweat houses–a tradition in the later Celtic world–and planted fields on about twenty acres of gentle mountainside. Eirlys and I have the village to ourselves, today, except for an ice cream truck snuggled up to an especially large hut.

Wales is the land of Eirlys’s ancestors and, remotely, of mine. In this break from our high-speed lives, we are stirred by deep connections to the early inhabitants of the land, imagining lives rooted in earth, blown and fed by the sea. There is no formal entrance to this place–just an invitation to find your own way to the ancient world.

After a few wrong turns on tiny back roads, we discover the Bronze Age Penrhos Feilw stones. They tower in a pasture behind a private farmhouse overlooking a wind farm and the sea. In Britain, you are welcome to enter private land to view a national treasure, and will often be joined, as we are, by tail-wagging farm dogs quite used to the mysteries you have come far to see. These stones rise from the ground nearly twelve feet, and are smooth as polished wood in the unceasing wind. Like great Druids, they have stood for centuries, unassuming and steadfast in their hooded yellow lichen capes.

We hope to reach Din Lligwy before dark, and drive quickly along the coastal road between open, rolling hills and the sea. From the small parking area, toward the setting sun, over a long, green slope looking to the ocean, a trail takes us up into woods of mossy trees and wildflowers and green-gold light. It is hard to imagine on this peaceful late afternoon that we are approaching a place built by native people trying to survive the Roman occupation. But apparently, with a clear view of the sea before them and flat land behind them to cultivate for food, this was an ideal spot in the 4th century for a defended settlement. Everything that remains is of stone-round and rectangular shapes were once thatched huts inside a multi-angled defensive wall. The low sun strikes lichen-spattered granite rocks among lush grasses, making our faces glow and moving our long shadows across hay fields to a manor house of the same granite as these ancient dwellings. Its wide front door, chimney pots and stables speak of continuity. Everything touches everything else.

At dark, we drive down the Lly^n Peninsula, the least visited area of Wales, to the lovely village of Aberdaron. Across from Aberdaron, protected by channels of dangerous currents, is fabled Bardsey Island.

Eirlys has business elsewhere, so I depart next morning alone for Bardsey Island from the beach at Porth Meudwy on a boat usually chartered for fishing and diving. I am on board on this sun-filled morning with a large family of several generations who, being Welsh, welcome me like a cousin. Seven-year-old Ffion Emyr Evans, sings for us with her open-throated, full voice, her eyes radiant, and I think of the dancing eyes of Erna Evans. Whether by blood or not, Ffion and Erna are kin.
Tiny Bardsey Island, or Ynys Enllii–island in the current-has long been a sacred place. It was farmed for centuries and home to holy men in stone cells beginning in the 5th century A.D. There is some evidence that it is the Isle of Avalon of King Arthur’s legend, and that Merlin is buried here. Apparently influenced by the pre-Christian belief that the dead could find sanctuary in the west, pilgrims were drawn here when their days were nearly done.

The narrow road from the quay curves up the gentle foot of the island’s mountain to a stone settlement. At its center is the cemetery, with the remains of a 13th century Augustinian abbey tower and two Celtic crosses. One is very tall, and honors a former owner of the island. The other is smaller, and reads, “Respect. The remains of 20,000 saints are buried near this spot.”

I am perched above rooftops on a hillside overlooking the south end of Bardsey Island. I imagine pre-Neolithic fishermen; I imagine Druids and Christians surrounded by gulls. Below me is the observatory where volunteers from all over the world gather every summer to help track the island’s rare and endangered birds, study its plants, insects, ocean life and geology. If I were a true pilgrim of the old tradition, I would stay here–and be buried somewhere near this spot.

Instead, Eirlys meets me back at the harbor, and we get a glimpse of heaven on our way north. Someday, I will take the time to hike and camp and be in Snowdonia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. For now, we cherish every sight out of car windows-like the Jacob’s sheep with their long back-facing horns, grazing the bowl of Snowdon Valley, and massive mountains, so difficult to climb, that it was here Sir Edmund Hillary trained before his historic ascent of Mt. Everest. Today, rock climbers cling to cliffs like strange orange and yellow birds.

We leave the dreamlike Pass of Llanberis and it seems only moments later that I am leaving Wales. Eirlys and I have become friends. She puts me safely, tearfully, onboard the train at Llandudno and I leave as I came–welcomed.

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