Lourdes, Fatima, Rome, The Holy Land, Assisi and……Penmaenmawr?
The little North Wales village is an unlikely companion for the world-famous shrines but in July this year it became the latest centre to be added to the list of places which have hosted our parish pilgrimage. Having visited the major sites in recent years, we felt it was time we had a look at our own native Celtic saints. The decision was a sound one as the stories and places associated with these saints proved every bit as interesting and spiritually inspiring as those surrounding the more illustrious locations we have visited in the past.
Eight people signed up for the 5 day pilgrimage led by Father John. Our base was Noddfa Spirituality Centre on the outskirts of Penmaenmawr. The Centre is run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary and they attract parishes and individuals from all over the UK and Ireland for retreats, contemplation and pilgrimages. The grounds of the building are extensive and beautiful with access straight on to the mountainside above the village. It is an excellent place to prepare for a spiritual journey.
We were joined there by the Reverend Julie Hopkins, a Church of England clergywoman who is an expert on the Celtic saints and over the next few days she communicated to us her passion for the subject in extraordinary detail. She led us to some beautiful and historical sites and enhanced the experience for us. It is true to say that it would have been a very different experience without Julie and her information sheets
We spent a day in Anglesey tracing the 6th century stories of St Cybi and St Seiriol. The two saints became good friends during their long spell in North Wales. St Cybi was the son of the King of Cornwall and should have inherited that title. Having already decided on the priestly life (and having already travelled to Jerusalem and Rome) he declined the kingly role and travelled to South Wales where he founded a monastic settlement at Llangybi near Usk before travelling to Anglesey where he hoped to live a hermit’s existence. Like most of these Celtic saints he longed for spiritual solitude but instead attracted large numbers of people eager to listen to his teaching. St Seiriol was from Powys and moved to Puffin Island off the Anglesey coast but again was forced to become a pastor rather than a hermit. Puffin Island is known as Ynys Seiriol in Welsh and is a truly beautiful place as are the remains in a peaceful valley of the settlement inhabited by St Cybi.
Not all was hard work and Julie’s spiritual exercises. Jan Bolous had had the brilliant idea of bringing Trivial Pursuits with her and in the evenings we had rather rambunctious sessions of the quiz game. We split into pairs. Kath Champ and I won despite the gamesmanship and downright skulduggery employed by our opponents to deny us our rightful crown. What goes on tour should stay on tour, so I shall name no names. I must say, though, that I was aghast that the man entrusted with our spiritual welfare thought that Shinto was a bone in the leg.
The longish trip to the Lleyn peninsula was well worth it for the views over Bardsey Island, the island of 20,000 saints. The legend was that anyone who died there would go straight to heaven hence the large numbers of burials. According to Julie, beastly Norman bishops setting up churches and cathedrals e.g. Llandaff, used to raid these graves to get skulls and other relics for their new establishments. She disapproved of this practice so thankfully it has stopped now. Nearby Aberdaron Church in Wales parish church was interesting not least as the last parish of the famous poet and clergyman R S Thomas.
On the way to Lleyn we visited a church at Clynnog Fawr which was on the site of the monastic settlement where St Beuno was Abbot. He was another teacher who drew people from far and near to learn from him. He was said to be very tough on hardened sinners but full of compassion for those who wished to live better lives. Remember him for he pops up later in this engrossing account.
Away from the Celtic saints, we were able to visit Caernarvon, Betws-y-Coed and the two cathedral cities of Bangor and St Asaph. I was most impressed by the lovely little town of Beaumaris in Anglesey which must have one of the finest settings anywhere, framed as it is by the Menai Strait and the Snowdon mountain range on the mainland opposite.
Easily the most atmospheric place we visited was Pennant Melangell. This is deep into a valley and the lanes get narrower and narrower until they end altogether at St Melangell’s Church sitting in its circular churchyard with its sacred grove of yew trees. There is no sound whatsoever in the valley apart from birdsong. St Melangell was an Irish noblewoman who fled her home to escape an enforced marriage. One day Prince Brochwel of Powys and his men chased a hare deep into the valley. St Melangell hid the hare in her robes and the hounds, sensing her holiness, refused to finish the hare off. This so impressed the Prince that he became her protector and the community she founded grew in numbers and importance. The legend persisted for many centuries so that no hares were ever killed in that valley.
On the way there we had stopped at Bala and visited the tiny Catholic church there. It claims to be the first one in the world (they don’t mess about with minor claims these North Walians) to be dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. It certainly does Our Lady proud and is obviously lovingly cared for in an area where Catholics are a tiny minority. If you are in the area it is well worth a visit and located right in the middle of the main street shopping area.
Before catching the train for home on our last day, we visited St Winefride’s shrine at Holywell. Many of you will be familiar with it and it was by far the most organised and formal of the shrines we visited, complete with bathing pools and shop. Nevertheless it remains undeniably an atmospheric place and many people are regular visitors drawing spiritual inspiration from it. Cures have been attributed to the sacred properties of the waters. St Winefride had her head cut off for spurning the advances of a local prince and the miraculous well sprung up where her head landed. She was later restored to life by her uncle St Beuno—try and keep up, I told you he would crop up again.
Jan and Kath contrived at this point to jam a pump action tap which had been smoothly dispensing holy water from the well for about seven centuries. My attempts to listen to the final poem being read by the Reverend Julie were disrupted by cries of “Give it some wellie Jan” and “Hit it a kick Kath”. Anyway, it was eventually restored to working order.
This pilgrimage was a great success and that was down to the cheerful, sociable and friendly group of parishioners who made the trip and to the sisters and staff of Noddfa for their unfailing helpfulness and hospitality . Special mention must be made of Father John who not only organised the whole event but also shared demanding minibus driving duties with Graham Taylor and Kath Champ. Graham’s wife Angela, Maria, Jan Bolous, Angela Jones and John Sweeney just sat back and enjoyed the scenery. An enjoyable, enlightening and entertaining pilgrimage and we were all glad we had taken part.