Friday, June 13, 2008

A Pilgrimage to Wales - Part II

On Friday, I rose early and walked to the well of St. Non and the ruins of the cottage where St. David was reportedly born. On my way, I meandered onto another path and saw an unmistakable Male Pheasant, a golden and chestnut body with a very long tail, a green-black head with a scarlet face patch. Sitting in a field – as I later saw several other male pheasants doing the same – there is no effort at camouflage and so it’s no wonder they grace many a British dinner table. Several in our party had pheasant for dinner during the week and were surprised to discover a gun shot as part of the dish – the waiters were nonplussed, saying only that you would expect that, given they were shot.

That morning, though, I also heard thrushes singing, not exactly the same call as the American wood thrush with the same throaty flute-like tones; my bird book was uninstructive as to whom it might be. I also identified that day a Great Tit, which was somewhat reminiscent of our Carolina chickadee: A small bird (but the largest European Tit, hence the moniker “great”) it is gray olive with bluish wings, a longer tail than chickadees, a black head with white cheeks and a black bib and pale yellow belly – a very pretty bird.

St. Non’s and the nearby medieval chapel overlook St. Bride’s Bay and the Irish Sea It’s quiet here as I’m the only one outside this early morning. I appreciate my time alone for we’ll be on bus most of the day, visiting various places.

When I return to the Old Cross Hotel, I’m late for breakfast but I don’t mind a bit and getting only a bowl of fruit and a cup of coffee. We’ve been having huge English breakfasts here in St. David’s as at Tintern and when we arrive at Cricceth: eggs, toast, sausages, broiled tomatoes, much larger than I usually have. Lunch is usually sandwiches and soup at a pub or inn enroute to our various stops. I didn’t keep track of all the meals but was generally pleased with the quality of the food and the presentation – European cuisine has permeated even England, once known for its too-heavy and dour meat and potatoes. Still we have fish – trout and salmon – I eat lamb whenever I can get it, and one dish we try is cawl, a traditional Welsh stew of lamb, leeks and vegetables. The Old Cross’ version is a little bit more like a soup, but still tasty. Desserts are yummy – bread pudding, fruit crisp are two that stand out for me – traditional but prepared well.

On this day, we venture 25 miles northeast of St. David’s, on a hill that overlooks Fishguard Bay is Pentre Ifan (dated at more than 6000 BC, it means “the home of Ivan”). Three monoliths are covered by a large capstone, about 16 tons heavy. This apparently was a gravesite and the earth has moved away from it. We stood leaning against the uprights, feeling the sense of this holy place set as it was near an oak grove more than 8000 years ago. I understand what our guide Cintra means about the sense of the past being present. The stones feel like that.

As we experienced this very quiet and special spots, several fighter jets made separate passes over the plain we were on – A similar sound had broken our silence on Tuesday when we were going to St. Issui ‘s Well and Patricio Church – this time, the plane came back several times. Whether or not he was showing off for us, it made me think about the meaning of this – After their sounds recede, the silence is filled with birdsong – robins, thrush, bunting-like calls. Despite the human accomplishments and attempts to soar, I think that what endures here is the Earth and her smallest birds.

Pentre Ifan and the burial chamber we visit later in the week – Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey Island – remind me of Stone Henge Interestingly, after my return, I read that archeologists have recently found evidence that Stone Henge was a burial site, rather than a place of druid worship as had been commonly assumed. Interestingly, this area is in the Preseli Mountains, from which the bluestone used in Stone Henge supposedly originated – we have to ask – How and why did they move it several hundred miles away?

At lunch, we meet a 94 year old poet Eluned Phillips who writes in Welsh. She’s the first woman to win the National Eisteddfod competition twice and only the third woman in the history of the Eisteddfod, an annual competition between poets dating back to the vying of medieval bards in the court and revived in 1819 at Carmarthen Castle. Ms. Phillips has written a book entitled “The Reluctant Redhead” about her interesting life; but I love her poems which are written in Welsh but which she translates for us. For example, in “My Heritage” she describes a Welshman’s effort to “caress a meager living” and brings alive the landscape as she describes the “white buds of blackthorns.” She’s a poet I want to read. She turns out to be only the first hint of what I have to learn about Welsh poets.

On Sunday afternoon we had a poetry lecture by Saunders and Cynthia Davies, he a retired bishop and she a translator of Celtic poetry. We learned that Welsh poetry is the oldest literature in Europe and that there are three kinds of harmonies or rhymes in Welsh poetry: echoing harmony where the line rhymes with the end; criss cross harmony – I love a green olive grove; bridging I am pleased with my plums; sonorous: where asphodels and bluebells blow. Poetry is the harmony of cynghannedd peculiar to wales and involving intricate verse forms and a most sophisticated form of sound patterning within the 24 meter verse. The history of Welsh poetry has stretched through five periods: from the poets of the Warriors to those of the Princes (1100-1400) to the Noblemen (1330), an era grounded in Christianity and including such poets as David of Williams, a contemporary of Chaucer who extolled the sacredness of God’s creation: “the chalice of ectasy in these woods” and of the woodland mass: “It was read of birds, crove in the sweet woods.

In 18th century, the poetry spoke of more cultivated nature. Our speakers report that amost famous poet [whose name I wrote as "Gorontown" but can find nothing about now], who was both a priest and poet, migrated to Virginia and lived at a plantation near Lawrenceville where he is buried; this is a mystery I need to track down.
In the 20th Century, a number of poets emerge who write only in Welsh – T Jones, Thomas Williams, Allyn Coed, Saunders Lewis, Walden Williams, Gweneth Jones. In “Ascension Thursday” the line reads “the father kissing the son in the white dew.” “Yesterday I saw a daisy” compares the viewing of the daisies in the grass to looking at the constellation in the heavens; only an hour before we heard this, Judy Boyd had commented to me on the beauty of the daisies in the grass in the Dean’s garden. Another poet, Welden Williams, who was father of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, describes God coming as “the outlaw . . . and the hunter . . .” These poets, explain the Davises, celebrate the sacramental aspect of language – God as artist and poet, “the chief bard of heaven seeks us to be words in his ode.” I believe this came from Mereid Hopwood, who has written A Welsh Pilgrim’s Manual.

After we ended lunch and said goodbye to poet Eluned, we were off to St. Brynach’s Church about whom a prayer says:

O holy Brynach, thou didst leave thy native Ireland
to seek God in Pembroke's solitude.
As thou dost now stand before Christ our God,
intercede with Him, we pray, that He may have mercy on us.

This 6th century saint was said to spend most of his time at a hermitage on this site praying and fasting; reportedly he was a kind of early St. Francis in that the wild animals were tamed by him. Nevern and St. David’s are among the oldest Christian sites in Great Britain, and the current church stands on the site of a much older chapel. We walk along a path from the road to a spring, where Harold almost slips on the wet rocks, and after prayers, we spend some quiet time walking and meditating. Here in the woods, interspersed with small meadows, one can sense the history here; in fact, it appears to me also a mythical place – the green somewhat greener, the plethora of ferns, garlicky aromatic Ramsoms with their white flowers and other moisture-loving plants – I am reminded of the Merlin myth and the way I always imagined the woods near his cave in Mary Stewart’s novels about Merlin and King Arthur. Everything is hyper green; I observe several b irds, the very round rose breasted robins (the shape is totally different from American robins) and a wren; again I hear thrushes of some kind – their flute like songs reverberating through the forest. In the churchyard are several yew trees; on one side is a place where red sap emerges; said to be a “bleeding yew” the story is that they will stop bleeding when there is a Welsh king or alternatively, when there is world peace.

Mid-afternoon we gather for communion in the church and then walk across the road to the church hall for tea and welsh cakes, softer and more moist than scones. We are served by the generous members of the parish who like so many others we have met at St. David’s have been more than generous in their welcoming and in sharing their culture, language and food with us. I experience a true sense of a greater communion of believers.

That night after dinner in St. David’s we experience a different side of the culture as eight of us embark to Haverford West to hear the Male Voice Choir rehearse. About 50 men of all ages, many well past 60, arrive around 7 from nearby businesses and farms. Over a hundred years old, the choir has had only nine directors, the ninth being the first woman director, Christine Schuerriel. Her accompanbist is Wendy. Christine, sitting in front of her music stand beats out the rhythm with her hand on her thigh or the stand as the men sing. “Okay gentlemen, right” she’d say, “let’s try that again.” They begin -- oddly enough for us who long to hear the Welsh songs -- with a medley of American Spirituals – “This Little Light of Mine,” “Amen” and “Shenandoah.” They follow with Welsh pieces, “The Peacemaker” and “Cambria,” the national anthem as well as an unknown choral piece -- “Nirvana”. Midway through they take a break, hold a business meeting and have a drawing for various items. At the end of the rehearsal they sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Their rendition reminded me why – when I was a youngster -- it was once one of my favorites. They did a lovely job, and it anew. One of my fellow pilgrims sang with them; he – who sings in a men’s choir in California – was thrilled to be part of the group for the evening. We joyously return to the Old Cross.


The flowers of Wales were less elusive than the birds, but not always. Usually I could describe them and then match them to something in my British flower book that I picked up in St. David’s. But the various hawthornes and blackthorns were lumped together – different people identified the white budded hedgerows differently – white hawthorn according to the innkeeper or was it “the white bud of blackthorn” ? ( poet Elunid Phillips) Since they’re akin to one another, I assumed we were probably seeing both at different times. Red Campion, a showy pink flower. Lots of foxglove growing wild and a pinkish flower that looked like milkweed but was described in my book as red valerian. Lots of delicate Bluebells – periwinkle bell like flowers nodding from a single stem. Purple Marsh Orchids. Lots of yellow – Gorse of course, thick low stubby bushes with thorns and bright yellow flowers and daisies with their hellow button centers. Buttercups much larger than those I’m used to in Virginia. Lovely delicate primroses with their soft wooly leaves. Yellow azalea, butter burr, red and purple dead nettle, and the wonderfully named “field mouse-ear”, rather large white flowers with small nibbles at the edge of each of the five petals. Often I picked a small sample of flowers to weave together into a nosegay. Back at the hotel, I would pop the nosegay into water, where they usually perked up and lasted for several days.

Generally the weather was most cooperative. Some days it was overcast, maybe with a few sprinkles. But only on Saturday did the weather really become a problem. This was the day for our Ramsey Island trip, disappointing because it poured raining, was cold and we could not, as planned, dock and walk on Ramsey Island. Our guide was not particularly helpful to people like me wanting assistance in spotting birds. HE was more of a tour guide of what he (and we supposedly) saw, without really seeing them. However, I did see razorbills, a shag (which looked like a cormorant with a mohawk), a skua. The guide saw a puffin but I wouldn’t claim I did.

By the end of our two hour boat ride, most people were drenched and cold; I was fortunately only the latter as my rain suit, pants and top, kept me dry enough. A long soak in the tub at the Old Cross was the first order of business on our return to the hotel.

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