Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pilgrimage to Wales - Part III

Sunday Julia and I walked to the 9:30 service at St. David’s Cathedral; Julia went to the Welsh service but I stayed in the main chapel for the regular service. It was an odd juxtaposition of medieval cathedral, modern praise music, and a “low-church” liturgy. But the people were very friendly and chatted us up afterward. Julia and I then went for a macchiato at a nearby café (along with a slice of dry fruit bread) and shopped a bit before returning to the church for lunch in the refectory with the dean, his wife, and a seminary student. After this, we had the lecture on poetry discussed in the previous posting.

The lecture was followed by a tea at “the Deanery” where the Dean of the Cathedral and his wife, a potter, live. There, I took a stroll in the lovely garden. I noticed again the lovely daisies in the grass – as the poet had written – like stars in the galaxy.

Alas, this was our last day in St. David’s but on to the next adventure -- a long drive to North Wales. After a Monday morning breakfast of porridge, I bid St. David’s goodbye as we began our journey to Aberstywyth. Along the way, I notice a new tree – locust- like fronds with drooping yellow blossoms. I soon learn that it’s a Laburnum; in my state capitol, Richmond, there’s a Laburnum Avenue, but I never recall seeing this tree. Later in the week, when we visit Bodnant Garden, I experience a tunnel of yellow laburnum.

But for now, as we journey northward, we see more woods in the fields but, often, in the background, the sea. The landscape has less craggy cliffs and more rolling hills. We get our first glimpse of the Snowdonia range, approximately the height of the Great Smokies, in N.C., or Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoah, 3000-3600 feet above sea level. Of course, we are much closer to the sea level here than in Western North Carolina or the Virginia Blue Ridge. Unlike the forested Smokies and Blue Ridge, Snowdonia is above the tree line. Sir Edmund Hillary and his team trained here for their successful Everest climb. Harold tells us that usually Snowdonia is visible only about 20 days per year; I am excited that we are getting to see it. But even as we drive, the scene changes from a clear view to clouds coming in – in fact the clouds themselves are fantastic. What a beautiful place.

As we drive through the various towns, I enjoy seeing the signs in Welsh and English: “Hanoed”– warning the drivers that there are “Elderly” nearby; “Sgol” for “school” and so on.

Buttercups, Hawthorn and Gorse line the roadways but when we stop at the Conrad Hotel for tea, we view the most luscious yellow azaleas (later also prominent at the Bron Eifron Hotel in Criccieth and also at Bodnant Gardens) and pink rhododendron. Also at the Conrad Hotel, there is a great vegetable garden with a plant that looks a little like rhubarb but in a more gigantic form. My handy flower book identifies this as Butterbur and verifies our observation that the leaves resemble those of Rhubarb.

Leaving Conrad, we see windmills on the distant ridges. We pass the national library in Aberstywyth. There are also a string of Welsh castles along this way and we’ll visit one later. I see a circle of mountains to my right, then a familiar wisteria climbing a tree.
Cintra points out the patches of dark green growth on the mountains – Scotch Pines grown for paper, wood, pulp – but they are crowding out the native habitat and species.

In Maetynleth we begin to see more brick homes added to the stone and stucco ones we have observed thus far. Pretty soon, we begin to see lots of slate on the homes and in the fences. There are fences of slate with slabs upright and bound or woven together by wire.

The area looks a lot like Northern Pennsylvania – Johnstown, Troy, Canton – the mountains bow out on either side of the road.

We stop at Llechwedd Caverns for lunch and then an underground tour. It was a grim life for the workmen – 12- hours working in the dark 6 days a week for pittance pay. They dug the slate by hand drills – pure manual labor – hauled it out, then split and finished the slate into neat pieces for construction. Today, because machinery can reach the veins of slate, it’s all open pit mining. The area was covered in waste slate -- only a small portion can be recycled into usable materials. There’s a volunteer from the local bird club at the entrance to the facility and we chat with him during our lunch period. I buy two small bird pins – of a Kingfisher (which I’ve only heard but not seen in Wales) and the “Shag”, my discovery off Ramsey Island. While here I identify the British Goldfinch, which doesn’t look like the American species at all. But could it have been the “canary” in the Slate mine?

We stop briefly at Dolwyddelan Castle, racing uphill to climb the tower parapets and look at the views and then wandering back down past bubbling springs.

Our next stop is Betws-y-coed (pronounced Bett-oos ee Coid), which means Chapel in the Wood. It’s a touristy but cute town where we found St. Michael’s Church, built in the mid-19th century on an ancient site. The font dates to 1300; in the eaves of the small church we spy a wooden bier, used for funerals. Near the altar there is a stone effigy of Llewellyan, Prince of Wales in the 13th century before the English kings subdued the Welsh. The black plague of the 14th century wiped out the town but in the 19th century, people began to return to the area. During the Second World War, the town was the site for some of the preparatory schools when the English sent their children to be out of the way of the bombing of Britain.

We held a communion in this church, and it was here that I felt an incredible spiritual energy during the service, as though the floor, and I, on it, were rising upward. After the service, good women of the parish served us a high tea in the church – wonderful little cakes and sandwiches and, of course, tea or coffee. It was really quite charming.

It was a long day but we arrive at last at the Bron Eifron Country House Hotel in Criccieth. It is not at all like the funky Old Cross – more of an estate turned into an inn. Our room has a huge bathroom in which we could probably fit half of our group! This inn has absolutely lovely gardens so I enjoy my early mornings walking around looking at the flowers– the azaleas and rhododendron in particular – and listening to bird sounds.

Our first excursion from Criccieth is a bus trip to St. Cybi’s Well. (Pronounced “Cubby’s”, it makes me think of a Saint shaped like a teddy bear.) However, St. Cybi, I learn, was an 8th century monk from the Cornwall area who had traveled in the Irish Sea area and came to Wales through Anglesey Island from Ireland with some followers. He reportedly struck water with his staff; hence, he was a miracle worker. Although I don’t know how this particular well came to be associated with him, it is said to be able to cure many different things.

We made a pilgrim’s walk to the well, stopping at gates for prayers, reminding us of the first pilgrimage by Abraham and Sarah. We pray by the Ancient cross where we trace the cross in the stone and then cross ourselves. At the second station, a stone stile, we pray for inner and outer peace. Again, near the pasture, we pray for earth. My prayer is that we may all recognize our personal and collective responsibility for the earth.

At another stop we pray for the Church and indeed for all religions. Twice in our pilgrimage toward the well, planes roar overhead, reminding us of earlier intrusions at Patricio and Pentre Ifan: “The world is too much with us, late and soon . . . ”

Set in a field, St. Cybi’s is a beautiful little well set within a stone structure which contains an additional room where we hold a service for anyone who wishes receiving healing prayers from three of our clergy. At the well, we dip and wash our faces, and I, my arthritic knee, as well. .
I feel the need here to ask God to help me heal the emotional wounds I have borne over the years, and that I give over to God the emotional and psychological work I have done on myself, thereby affirming its spiritual dimension.
Entering the prayer area, Birk prays “God heal her wounds and let her know she is beloved,” and I feel a sense of relief flooding my heart. I think that perhaps this is my pilgrimage of healing and reconciliation.

Next we drive on to Pistyll Church, a tiny ancient church probably 15 x 40 feet. The church has been filled with rushes on the aisle floor and sweet smelling Hawthorne, bay and cedar in the font and altar. Traditionally, such services as this are held mid-summer when the first fruits are harvested. The Rev. Andrew Jones conducts the service in Welsh. This was such a sweet and lovely place to worship. Yet outside the door, modern machinery grades the land for housing development.

Again, Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us late and soon:”

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. -Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.


From this lovely chapel, we drive a short distance to Nefyn and the Eglwys St. Llangwnnadl. According to legend, St. L. and his brothers were fathered by a man who failed to protect this the Llyn Peninsula by not repairing the sea wall so that a portion of it fell into the sea. Indeed, on mariners’ maps, there is a submerged peninsula, according to the church’s warden John Tierney. In the South Wall of the church, there is a stone reportedly from St. L.’s tomb on which a red cross is etched. The stone has been dated to 600 A.D. One of the pillars of the church in mid-chapel is dated 1520 around the time the north aisle of the church was added.

We drove further – this time to the tip of the peninsula at Aberdaron where we visited St. Hywyn’s (Hoh-ens), according to its priest Jim Cotter, the only St. Hywyns in the world. Jim warned us that he would not tell us about the features or the history of the church or stories of R.S. Thomas, the 20th century poet priest who was the rector during mid-20th century nor would he tell us the feats of St. Hywyn, all of which were featured in an informational booklet. Instead, he guided us into a deeper experience of the place and our pilgrimage. Each of us received a word – water, fire, earth, air, entranceway – and then spent 15 minutes or so sauntering (his word for truly observing) . We then regathered in groups, shared our impressions with each other and then with the larger group. It did not surprise me that the word given to me was “water” for it has been a central image in my life and my profession for the past 20 years (Ocracoke Island, the Rivanna River, water pollution work at SELC).

Some associations: water in and around us, the stuff of life, purifying resource, but also destructive 00 storms creating cliffs, battering and damaging the very church we’re in, water graves for those who sought cross over the seas. Jim points out that the pilgrim’s journey can be dangerous; even those traveling only a short way, as to Bardsey Island, often drowned. RS Thomas wrote: “Traveling the galley of the long drowning.” Other words and associations included Fire: flames contained as in a candle, transformative, lighting the way; Air: seen only by its effects, motion, aroma, seen and unseen, Christ suspended on the cross; earth – building, ashes to ashes, cliffs, fruits; doorways – entrances in our physical and spiritual being, the senses. All these are both outside us and also within us.

The deepening that occurred in these simple exercises made me hunger for more. Jim’s invitation to us to saunter more around the church or along the coast decided me – I would not travel up the hill to see Bardsey Island from the peak nor try the difficult trek to St. Mary’s well. Instead, I choose to walk along the coast. After tea and scones, I did just that – sauntering for an hour or so and then strolling back. There are so many animal paths that I understand fully how my friend Deborah lost her way on another part of the coastal path a few years ago requiring rescue by the Royal Air Force.

A herd of shorn sheep – mostly young or middle-aged lambs – were browsing the gorse on the side of the cliff. When they see me, they run ahead. I took a picture of the line of sheep preceding me. A little later, after they had scattered again and I had passed them, I looked behind me and they were following me. Pretty soon though they lost interest and I continued my saunter, looking at the flowers – corridors of pink Foxglove and rose Campion, yellow gorse and a myriad of tiny flowers, forget me nots, Bluebells, Buttercups and others – red grasses, daisies, yellow primrose, purple and red dead nettle. I saw Jackdaws and crows, gulls, chaffinches and a goldfinch, with bright red crown and black bib, magpies chattering as they fly out to sea.

I climbed steps from the beach, more steps descended in one cove and ascended again. When I strolled back past a ruined building on the cliffs to join the others at the Ty Newydd Hotel for drinks and dinner – This time I did note in my journal the food choice: an eggplant and goat cheese terrine with vegetables.

That night, we drove home in silence. Upon my arrival, I recounted some of the day to Julia who had chosen to stay in the hotel to recuperate from a cold.

No comments: