Or: The last leg of a pilgrimage across Wales. Summer 2015
I walk to Pwllheli (Salty Pool) eager, I have looked forwards so much to being here; it’s the market town close to where my partner was brought up, on a farm, and it’s where he will join me for the last section of this pilgrimage.
I choose to walk along the pavement for it is around 10 miles from Criccieth, where I have spent a pleasant morning wandering in and out of its shops whilst my clothes washed in a brightly coloured launderette that so wakened my joy at being alive and having chosen to be here, that I can safely say that it has redeemed every dismal town launderette I ever sat in as a young woman, proving that there is always a choice; to be functional, or to lighten hearts, in everything we present to the world. I found I was full of happiness, though nothing especially exciting was going on, and then I realised I was experiencing the 11th treasure; Simplicity.
I rejected the coastal path for being…. well, sandy; the soft slippery sort that runs through the fingers of small children, delighting them, and runs gracefully through egg timers, but to a long distance walker presents a challenge, as feet sink into it forming softly caving in holes that one must escape from, time and time again.
I soon regret my decision however; the idyllic western-most market town I have imagined is also the last mark of civilisation in this direction and seems to attract traffic of all description. It zooms along leaving noise in its trail, no regard for a humble walker or the other creatures it passes, oblivious to their presence.
The Welsh, though, have a regard for those who prefer a slower pace, here and there the speed of the traffic has warranted a new road, recently built, but the old road has been retained, for cyclists and walkers, just behind the hedge, paralleling the speedway, it runs, allowing me to muse on my partner’s parents driving this way in the 50’s escaping suburban and expensive Sussex, looking for a better life for them and their children.
There is something timeless about the experience, even the roads signs have been retained, so that one can get a real feel for how the journey to Pwllheli must have been when the pace of life was slower.
Then the road rejoins the speedway and the noise of the traffic disturbs my reverie and I trudge now, eager to arrive and be done with this stretch of my pilgrimage. I am feeling nothing of the sacred here. Then, my attention is caught; something dead is lying on the path before me. I bend to look, it is a magpie. My heart sinks, a single magpie has been present on every day of my walk so far, and here is today’s. I feel its loss keenly; as though it has been my companion every step of the way and now it has gone. I am moved to touch it and in doing so find it is still warm, recently killed then. I pick it up and cradle its soft, warm form close to mine. It is exquisite; I have never been so close to one before, its black feathers are not black at all, but shiny, iridescent, every colour of the rainbow. Close to tears I lay it in the grass beside the hedgerow beneath a wild rose, it nestles there, nest like, and I pick a rose to lay by its head. The sacred I had missed is here now, reverence fills the moment as I say goodbye to the magpie and honour its life, its beauty, its journey and wonder how it had died. I want to curse the cars for its death, but there isn’t a mark on the bird’s body that I can see.
I pluck a single feather from the body, to remind me of him, and his beauty, and know that the 12th treasure is Equanimity. Within all that life offers, there is both joy and pain, and we must be able to feel both with the same depth, and not shirk from one or other feeling, but simply allow it, offering our presence to the situation.
When I arrive at my destination my equanimity is tested and found wanting immediately. The houses on the approach are grey and bleak and there is an air of functional coping about them. I keep walking, hoping it will improve, after all, these must just be the outskirts and many towns have a belt of functionality around them, but over the bridge and to the sea and the marina, the feeling persists. I walk out towards the marina, looking for a yacht or two on the water to cheer my soul, to remind me of a now long past voyage to the Americas, marine hopping, and of good food, good company, and a joie de vivre particular to the sailing life, but I do not find it.
I trudge back and continue to follow the line of the sea into the town centre. It could be spectacular I realise; the geography and climate has everything going for it, a wide curved bay, clean air, open spaces, but today is a grey day and across the bay more grey houses stare mournfully back; why are we here, they seem to ask.
I wonder at my response to this place; it has much to offer, perfect location; a hub for the villages for miles around and a market for maritime trade. In the town centre bucket and spade shops intersperse the banks and the supermarkets, and the streets are busy with people. Yet I want to cry.
I search for a piece of Pwllheli to capture my heart; perhaps this is the new town, maybe the old town is further inland, like it is in Barmouth, but no; up and down the windy streets I go, but to no avail. There is a thick layer of deadening cotton wool wrapped around me; I am reminded of the towns where I grew up in Lancashire in the 70s.
I give up and make my way along the seaside road towards the golf course where my hosts for the night live. It is chilly now and the sea breeze makes me shiver. I look for a place to sit in shelter, to comb my hair at least, ready to meet my partner, but there is none. Eventually I turn away from the windswept seafront and find the leisure centre where they let me use the changing rooms, to change my appearance from dusty traveller to semblance of attractive woman.
When I arrive at the home of Arabella, sister to Joanna the musician in Criccieth, she and her partner have just arrived home. Shortly afterwards my partner arrives too.
“Steph the Story?” asks Arabella’s partner and when I reply in the affirmative introduces himself;
“Colin the Cripple.”
I am shocked but try not to show it. Soon, however, we are regaled with tales from this indomitable man, philosopher, jester, entrepreneur, who has not let illness destroy his spirit or his quick witted humour.
Arabella tells us how he almost died because the health service did not recognise he was ill, but she did, and in desperation contacted a specialist in Swansea and insisted on being helped. The man responded and Colin was whisked south where he spent a couple of months recovering in hospital. Had Arabella not acted, they said, he would have been dead within 5 days.
Arabella and Colin know all about illness and its causes. They have written many books on it over the years. Arabella, a highly qualified academic, challenged the profession with meticulously researched evidence many years ago, but even now we suffer the consequences of a profession too scared to admit ignorance and allow new insights to reenergise their work. Coming as I do from an alternatively thinking town, their thesis is familiar; we are living in the fall out of a mechanistic society that believed people’s bodies were glorified machines. People respond to Nature, to good healthy freshly prepared local food, to nurture, to following their life passion; if they don’t get it for long enough they get sick. It is very simple. Our hospitals are full of these people, given medication to hide the symptoms. Our schools are full of them too, given medication to suppress their appetite for life.
If you are curious and want to know more:
“Cured to Death” by Arabella Melville and Colin Johnson Stein & Day 1983 http://www.amazon.com/Cured-Death-Effects-Prescription-Drugs/dp/0812828895
I am here though to hear about the Eternal Forest. When Arabella and Colin came to North Wales they decided to protect the woodlands. Then Arabella’s father died and they realised that if they had a Natural Burial ground they could protect the woodlands and allow people to bury their dead in a good place; a place where they could come and walk, and appreciate Nature as they paid their respects to their loved ones.
They arrived at the perfect time; the council had woodlands they didn’t know what to do with and were struggling with funds for their upkeep. It is possible there might be more eternal forests springing up in North Wales.
Arabella’s home is similar to her sister’s, full of paintings by their talented mother and by herself. By the lounge window, with its panoramic view of the sea, is a fish tank. Out of it protrudes a sculpture. It catches my eye over and over. Then we hear the story of DogDog. DogDog was Arabella’s pet dog who loved to swim in the sea, come rain or shine. The sculpture is DogDog swimming in the sea. It’s exquisite in its movement and its aliveness. It should be in a gallery, but I expect it is exactly where it should be, for now.
It is Dog-Dog that gives me my thirteenth treasure. Arabella, much as her sister, has spent time giving her support to young people with mental health problems. One day she wrote a poem about DogDog to give one young man a little perspective when he was in a depressive state of mind. I reproduce it here:
Dog -Dog and the Nasty Danky Day
It’s a thoroughly nasty danky day
With moaning wind and rain so grey
But our plans won’t be blown astray
This thoroughly nasty danky day
‘cos we’re gonna climb the hills today
Through the woods and far away
In the sea my dog will play
This thoroughly nasty danky day
‘cos he don’t care if the sky is grey
He has fun just every day
Dog-Dog knows we can be gay
On a thoroughly nasty danky day
I so often find it is by observing the behaviour of animals that I learn the most about what matters. The 13th treasure is Joy; the joy that wells up from the inside and is not dependent upon external influences, the joy that we bring to others by simply feeling it around them.
When we leave Pwllheli it is with joy, having learnt its lesson. It is not our surroundings that are responsible for our mood, but our state of mind. My partner has laughed at my response to his home town and says he should have warned me about the eastern approach.
By the time we have shopped for supplies for our week’s sojourn on an island with no shops we have left it so late that there isn’t time to walk the whole way to Aberdaron but I don’t want to miss any part of the jewels along the way so we chapel hop, soaking in the deep peace of each place till we get close enough for me to ask to be dropped off to walk and my partner goes on ahead to take our provisions to our place of rest for the night.
The walk is beautiful. I walk slowly, soaking in each moment of it. I am glad of this last stretch alone, to appreciate what it is I have just done, alone, the things I have experienced, felt, now know; the fear and the exhilaration, the new friends made along the way, the insights that have already changed me forever.
The last chapel before reaching Felin Uchaf, the magical storytelling and Welsh traditional boat building centre where I will spend the last night on the main land, is ancient, and still has the face to face wooden pews that were once so common and rarely seen now. I sit for a while, appreciating the stillness, appreciating that in the hurly burly of life we have retained these places of sanctuary, understanding finally just how important this aspect of life is to me, having rejected church young, feeling only the patriarchal layers of rule-making that suffused it. Beneath all of that, beneath the very stones too, lies the truth. The sense of sacred the ancients felt and honoured with a circle of trees or stones, where a spring had its source.
As I walk down towards my destination its creator passes me in his little van and offers me a lift but I refuse; I want to walk this last little bit too. My partner has walked out to meet me, to walk the final stage of my pilgrimage together. It feels significant. He walks by my side; our paths have come together here.
We have visited Felin Uchaf before. It was a dream that became reality for Dafydd and Pip and now they host volunteers, often young, from all over the world in their round houses, whilst they learn to build, to thatch, to carve wood, to make signs, chairs and even to restore traditional boats. I have written about them before, here. Dafydd is a storyteller but tonight I am the storyteller. We gather, 13 of us, around the fire in the little living room of the stone cottage which was all there was here when Felin Uchaf began its new life.
I tell the tale of the Warriors Way and the 13 Treasures. It is a little raw, new, its freshness a little immature yet. The candlelight flickers and the room darkens as the story comes to an end and we go off to sleep in the large storytelling hut where storytelling events happen.
In the morning the swallows awaken with us, swooping around the large hollow between their nest in the high pointy eaves and the large central space where there is a fire pit. We have slept on mattresses around the edge, on the raised platforms where the audience sit on storytelling evenings. There is a timeless quality about our experience; it is safe, quiet, and we are fully immersed in the life that goes on around us. It seems to me that Wales really is a land where time does not dwell, and it is good.
Dafydd has taken us on a guided tour of the round houses, to see what has developed since last we were here. There is a storyteller’s house almost complete, where visiting storytellers, like me, will be able to stay. He tells too of the Bronze Age settlement that is being excavated on the hill that can be seen from the doorway.
It is time now though for the crossing to Bardsey Island. ‘There is an island there is no going to but in a small boat the way the saints went,’ said poet RS Thomas. We soon understand why the Welsh call it Ynys Enlli, (island in treacherous waters); we are the last to cross that day. The tides have worsened and the boat man says he won’t risk it again today. I cling on with both hands to the low railing that is all that lies between me and the ocean, as the two men chat in the cabin as Colin pushes the boat on through its course to the island. At times the catamaran is riding on its back end with the bow standing proud out of the water and I understand why they made us wrap our belongings in plastic and put them in the tiny cabin; if they had been beside me in the main body of the flat bottomed boat they would have been tipped out as the first wave was crossed.
I arrive with aching arms from the tension of holding on and a sense of achievement too; I have made it! We got across safely. It feels more of a success than having crossed the Atlantic to Brazil in a sail boat more than 20 years ago, or perhaps it is just that I feel my fears more fully now, instead of passing them off as excitement.
The Bards called Ynys Enlii ‘The land of indulgences, absolution and pardon, the road to heaven, and the gate to paradise’ and certainly on this mile and a half stretch of land off the Pen Llyn, as the locals call it, with its car free track and dozen Victorian houses, home to a myriad sea birds and a lighthouse provides many opportunities to simply be.
On the beach on a scorching hot day, whilst my partner mends a lobster pot, I write a poem and he tells me it is perfect for the lyrics for the new song he has composed on his guitar.
As we walked back by the coastal path we found the heart of Bardsey. Thick sailors’ rope lay half buried in the grass on the path, laid out in a perfect heart. This has indeed then been, quite literally, a journey to the heart!
At the musical evening in the old school room, (where Christine Evans, the island’s poet, and boatman’s mother, tells us her parents-in-law lived in their latter years), which we forgot to go to, turning up late and finding no one there, we sang our new song, our first song, all alone. It was the only thing I wrote on the island. It kinda said it all;
Where the Sun Sets
Meet me where the sun sets
Where glistening crystals
Dazzle in the glas*
Of Bardsey, of Bardsey
Meet me where the sun sets
On a shore of golden shells
To the call of seal sound mourning
On Bardsey, on Bardsey
Meet me where the sun sets
Shadows cast on stone
Of Celtic Cross (In the ruins of the past)
On Bardsey, on Bardsey
Meet me where the sun sets
Upon pink thrift
On mellowed stone wall
In heaven, in heaven
On a shore of golden shells
The ruins of the abbey stood by our house and though we saw no graves for the 20,000 saints said to be buried on the island, Christine, who has lived on the island for many years, since her marriage to a local fisherman, told us that when the track was re routed many, many skeletons, their heads facing the edge of the track, pagan burials, were uncovered and covered up again. Christine had many stories to tell of the history of Bardsey, from the Victorian father who wouldn’t let his pregnant daughter out of Hendy (where we were staying) to see her lover further down the island till the baby was born and the girl escaped to the mainland to marry her lover and then come back to the island, to the tale of a modern hopeful who believing Merlin was in his cave on the island brought a boatload of Dutch tourists to see it.
I didn’t like to say I was looking for him too. She did, however, tell us where the cave was and we scrambled up the mountain to the large white stone she had told us to look out for. It was to be full moon that night, exactly a month since I had left Caerleon. The white stone turned out to be larger than man sized and made of quartz. We crawled into the narrow opening of the cave below it but she was quite right; there was no Merlin there. The dead sheep she had mentioned was, and the place had no sense of being other than a very old hole in a very old mountain. Still it was good to be there, though it dispelled any sense of illusion I may have been holding onto, on my journey, of what I might find there.
Still, the giant crystal was there, making us think of all the things that are powered using quartz, and wondering if it had had some import to the ancients. That night we watched two lights in the sky come closer and closer together, telling each other of alien spaceships, and wondering, then, the next morning we were told that Jupiter and Venus had come together, and we had seen them, in the sky above the ruins of St Mary’s abbey with a full moon rising behind it.
Pragmatic as ever my partner wouldn’t let me leave my 13 treasures on the island; what would future archaeologists say, he asked, how would they explain pine cones from South Wales, slate from Maentwrog, and a crystal from near the source of the Wye. My girl child sulked a little at this but in the end when he had found me a lovely piece of slate big enough for all of my words – have I told you them all yet? No, I don’t think I have:
I scratched them on and left them in the place we had enjoyed the most; on the northern end, Baer Nant, a bay of great beauty, by a mellowed stone wall full of thrift and gorse flower and knew it was right.
The folk from the Bird Observatory came down to check the shearwater nests. There are 26,000 shearwaters on Bardsey. The parents have nests in the ground and in the stone walls where they come to feed their chicks by night. During the day they have been known to fly as far as Brazil fishing. A downy chick is lifted from his nest and handed to me. He is soft and warm … and afraid. His little heart beats wildly and I wish they hadn’t taken him from his nest and hand him back to put back.
The northern end of Bardsey feels ancient and right, with its view of the mountains of the mainland and its now long since vanished Neolithic settlement. My partner finds a worked flint and we leave it with Christine for the museum we hope to see there one day so that the island’s treasures will no longer be taken to the mainland and not returned.
Our house is the closest to this part of the island, and furthest away from the beach where the boat comes. We have been told that archaeologists have identified a circular enclosure where our house and its neighbour now stand.
Like the other houses on Bardsey it has a walled garden, a bucket loo in an outhouse, and no wash room. I wash my hair outside in the sunshine in a basin on the garden wall and remember washing my clothes in a stone sink outside my house in the sunshine of the paradise known as Brazil.
My partner got along well with the locals on the island and when he heard they were looking for an island manager to take care of the visitors’ houses we knew it was his dream job. It seemed possible we might return to this northern paradise.
Colin brings us fresh lobster and a crab and we gaze at them both delighted and horrified. We love seafood, especially crab and lobster, but they are still alive. We both know it is not me that will have to kill them, especially when I suggest putting them back in the sea. We have been told to boil them alive but we don’t want to. We want to kill them quickly; instantly, so they feel no pain. Eventually they are taken outside and brought back in dead and we put them in the cooking pot. I know then the love of my partner, to spare me the anguish, he had done what caused him anguish too.
The seafood was delicious; we felt great appreciation to those splendid creatures who had given their lives so that we might enjoy their flesh. It is not possible not to appreciate your food if you know it has just died for you.
We are both entranced by the island; its silence, its nature, untainted by pollution of any sort (rare mosses grow on the mountainside to prove it) and its archaeology. There are known to have been 5th & 6th century dwellings on the mountain when the first monk, St Cadwan, came to establish a place of worship, here so there certainly were people here in the time of the Merlin of Arthur’s time. Bardsey has never been fully excavated though and the locals often put things back where they found them, such as human remains out of respect, and visitors often take away treasures they find, including the experts who then have them put in museums.
Passionate though I am about nature and archaeology this was my pilgrimage and I was missing the sense of the sacred I had experienced here and there as I journeyed. Certainly Merlin’s cave had shared none of that with me. On the final morning I visited the oratory and there, in a tiny stone hut with its 5 wooden chairs with their woven sheep’s wool covers I found the palpable felt sense of the divine that I had been missing. The oratory was founded by a woman, a Sister Helen. I found that fitting, for this journey of mine, for though I followed in Merlin’s footsteps, and felt his guidance along the way to visit sites of his times, this was my own journey, had been inspired by women, and been walked by a woman; it is only right that it be a woman’s sacred work that I found on the island.
When I left to walk to the boat an unmistakable scent of incense followed me down the track and the journey back was as smooth as glass.
My journey to the heart had been recognised.