St Tydecho Pilgrimage Sites in West Wales

by JoHarrington

Medieval monks used to visit each church and landmark left by this ancient Welsh saint. You could follow in their footsteps on a pilgrimage to St Tydecho.

Christianity officially came to Britain in 597, but that was only the Anglo-Saxons being converted by St Augustine.

The Celtic Church had been alive and well for a good two centuries previously, and St Tydecho was one of its biggest proponents in Wales. Known primarily for his curative wells and his miracles while thwarting Pagan kings, Tydecho was active during the mid-6th century.

You can still visit many of his sites in Gwynedd and Powys today, following trails left by the faithful pilgrims, who flocked there in the mid-Medieval period.

Who was St Tydecho?

He was a sixth century British saint, whose mission took him from Britanny into Wales. His area now straddles the Gwynedd/Powys border.

Today St Tydecho is little more than a name on a handful of churches or a curious face in the landscape.

But in Medieval times, he was one of the most important British saints in the Celtic/Catholic Church.

Monks would leave their monasteries to follow in Tydecho's footsteps, and meditate within the holy places that he left behind. Now largely forgotten, that pilgrim route was once very well established.

Nor were the ordinary, non-ordained faithful oblivious to this trail. Some came for prayer or blessing, others to seek a cure for their physical ills. Reports of miracles around his altars, wells and other sacred spots were frequently attested.

Traditionally, St Tydecho traveled from Brittany with his sister St Tegfedd. Some accounts include a brother too, though his name is variously given as Samson or Dogmael.  A contemporary of St David, St Iltud and St Gildas, Tydecho was active throughout the mid-Cardigan Bay area, particularly Mawddwy.

He would have witnessed the Battle of Camlan, in which the annals tell us Arthur and Medraut (aka Modred) died. His churches triangulate the battlefield.

Tydecho's legends largely involve thwarting local Pagan warrior-kings, as they would attempt to hinder or destroy his Christian mission. When the powerful Maelgwn Gwynedd tried to disturb Tydecho's crop planting, the saint prayed for assistance. The High King was duly stuck fast to the rock upon which he sat.

When the Powys chieftain Cynan abducted Tegfedd, her brother's prayers caused the warlord to be struck blind, until he returned the holy lady and begged for forgiveness.

But these weren't the only stories. A local milkmaid was struggling under her load through the Aran Mountains. She stumbled and dropped her pails, spilling all inside. Tydecho found her sobbing beside the stream. He promptly wrought a miracle by which the waters alongside turned into milk. It's still called the Llaethnant (Milk Stream), and it still runs white.

At one time, multitudes of Christians would visit the places associated with St Tydecho. Modern day pilgrims can still do the same.

Why Would a Pagan be Interested in a Catholic Saint?

I hold a theory that Tydecho was originally a Pagan God. Catholics may disagree. An analysis of the legends of Tydecho and Tegfedd may be found here.
What happened to the Celtic Gods and Goddesses after coming of Christianity? Some staggered on in fairy tales, others were lost and a few were incorporated.

St Tydecho's Church in Llanmawddwy (Eglwys Tydecho Sant)

Once the mother church for the entire Mawddwy/Mallwyd area, this was where most Tydecho pilgrim trails began.

None of St Tydecho's surviving churches are his original buildings.

Most are 14th century churches constructed on the site where he held his mission. They've each been subject to much expansion and improvement over the years.

Unusually, a lot of that occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries, when Britain's tumultuous religious landscape meant that few churches were being renovated. But that is largely due to the enthusiastic Rev. Dr John Davies, who was rector at both Llanmawddwy and Mallwyd at the time.

The location of Llanmawddwy Parish Church would have been very well known to St Tydecho and St Tegfedd.  Here, more than anywhere, contemporary Christians would come to find them. Tydecho is said to have lived in a cell somewhere in the grounds. But the specific spot has been lost.

This was a place already sacred before St Tydecho arrived. Huge yew trees grace the churchyard, once forming a full circle. Though only three now survive.

In 1746, workers digging in that graveyard uncovered a 6th century inscribed stone, which must have been carved in Tydecho's life-time, or soon afterwards. It proved a Christian presence in Llanmawddwy since at least then.

A church has stood on this spot for fifteen hundred years, though not necessarily the same one.

It may be expected that a series of buildings served the purpose, until the 14th century, when a stone-built Medieval church was constructed for its Catholic congregation.

Unfortunately, this isn't quite what we're seeing today. From 1854, Llanmawddwy Parish Church was extensively rebuilt by Reverend John Williams. Much of the original architectually Catholic features were removed, in order to create a more Anglican aspect.

This holy enclosure in Llanmawddwy was a center of Christianity in an unbroken line going back to 520 (and almost certainly a Pagan sacred place before then). But all that ended in 2006, when the church doors were locked.

St Tydecho's Llanmawddwy Church is currently unused/abandoned with dust collecting fast inside. You cannot go in, but the grounds are worth wandering around.

The disuse is particularly sad, when you consider the esteem in which Tydecho was once held. In the 17th century, a historian named George Owen passed through the village. He was startled to note that parishioners still kept a vigil for St Tydecho - in his old decaying chapel within the modern church grounds - every Friday night.

This was after the Reformation, when such 'Papist' practices would not only have been viewed with grave suspicion, but could be downright dangerous for anyone indulging in them. Yet the people of Llanmawddwy were prepared to risk all to keep that ancient tradition alive.

How to Find Llanmawddwy Parish Church

From North Wales:

  • Take the A494 to Llanuwchllyn (if coming from Bala, you have the option of the B4403 too)
  • Take the mountain road south, past Y Bryn, on the eastern side of the Twrch Valley. It will be sign-posted Llanmawddwy, Dinas Mawddwy and/or Bwlch-y-Groes
  • Follow the winding, climbing, narrow road up into the mountains onto the Bwlch-y-Groes. NB This has a 17% gradient descent on the other side, and the road twists somewhat. New drivers or those with heavier cars might prefer the long way around.  (In which case, take the A494 to Dolgellau, then follow the directions below instead.)
  • Stay on the road down into the valley. You will arrive in due course at Llanmawddwy. The church is on the left, with parking a few yards on to the right.

From West, East and South Wales:

  • Take the A470 to Dinas Mawddwy and turn into the village
  • Follow the main road through the village, which leads north into the Dyfi Valley and is clearly sign-posted Llanmawddwy.

Pilgrim Trail for Tydecho into the Aran Mountains

If you're looking for the legendary landmarks associated with St Tydecho, you'll need to move beyond his church to the mountainside above.

St Tydecho Trail in the Mountains Above Llanmawddwy

Recently a friend and I attempted to recover this pilgrim path. We were mostly able to work out where all of those legendary Tydecho landmarks were located.

I've had few more frustrating days than this one. I was so close to visiting every single one of St Tydecho's Mawddwy landmarks, but we were thwarted by weather and a misreading of the map.

The landscape above Llanmawddwy (to the west) is all owned by the National Trust. However interest in St Tydecho hasn't been wide-spread enough in recent centuries for them to install sign-posts and information boards.

Our route had been pieced together from old history books, along with clues provided by modern day mountaineers and hikers.

Unfortunately, we didn't have internet access up there. The Aran Mountains block all signals within the pass, even for 'phones. Plus torrential rain rendered visibility quite reduced.

I should also have purchased an Ordnance Survey map (number 125 in the Landranger series: Bala and Lake Vrynwy (Y Bala a Llyn Efrynwy) would have been perfect), and matched up my disparate hints on there, instead of relying on notes previously made from Google Maps. The latter really wasn't adequate.

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My friend and I walked much further than we needed to go. The terrain was stunning, so this wasn't exactly the disaster it could have been. But it did mean that I didn't find a couple of St Tydecho sites, through looking in the wrong place.

It's only since returning home, armed with information gleaned there, plus the Landranger map in my possession, that I've been able to locate (more or less) precisely where everything will be. I will indicate where places are known (and recently visited) and where their position is due to educated guesses.

Hiking Boots for your St Tydecho Trek

Though you're heading into the mountains, the steep path is well-defined. You won't need climbing equipment, though sturdy hiking boots wouldn't go amiss.

Starting Point: Public Footpath in Pennant

This is about one and a half to two miles north of Llanmawddwy.

Armed with your new Landranger map, I need only tell you that the stile leading to Tydecho's trail is located at SH 905214.

However, we didn't have the map at the time, and we found it just fine.

  • Continue north out of Llanmawddwy, following the main road, for just under two miles.
  • The road will VERY sharply take a right turn (practically a U-turn, if we're honest), leading suddenly steeply upwards towards the Bwlch-y-Groes.
  • Breathe a sigh of relief that you don't have to navigate that turn, and (if you're driving) park up instead.
  • Climb the stile next to the gate before you. It is clearly sign-posted 'public footpath'.
  • Follow the track under the trees and out alongside a fence overlooking a stream.
  • Disdain the gate ahead for the trail running to the side of the fence. The right way is again sign-posted, but this is the last one.
  • Pass Blaen Pennant farmhouse (below to your left).
  • Stay on this path until told otherwise.
You are nowhere near a cafe. Remember to take water and snacks for your trek.
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Rhiw-y-Meirch: Where Maelgwn Gwynedd's Horses Ran

You will now be approaching the slopes of Craig Ty-Nant mountain. Beyond the trees, to your left, you are overlooking a deep hillside ultimately leading down into Llanmawddwy. The lower ridge connects to the next mountain along, and the Llaethnant Falls tumble right down the middle.

This is Rhiw-y-Meirch (Ridge of the Horses). This is where Maelgwn Gwynedd set loose a herd of white mares, then sat back to watch the chaos ensue, as they distracted Tydecho from his prayers. But the saint wrought a miracle whereby they all turned yellow - thus prohibiting the Gwynedd warlord claiming them back as his own - and they all remained fat and healthy despite no stockpiles of hay to feed them.

As you continue to follow the track, you will turn left (past a lovely waterfall on the right and trees to the left). At this point, you will be cutting through the upper levels of Rhiw-y-Meirch yourself.

Occasionally a name leaps out of the annals of history with such force, that you just have to run with it. Maelgwn, ruler of Gwynedd, tested the patience of two saints.

St Tydecho's Head in Profile in the Craig Ty-Nant Rockface

For ancient pilgrims, this was evidence that the saint is still there. Always ready to give his protection and blessing over the landscape below.

At the summit of Rhiw-y-Meirch, catch your breath, then turn around.

I knew from the old legends that St Tydecho's face appeared in profile overlooking the lands where he once roamed. What I hadn't expected was the detail.

My friend commented that you can even make out his eye-lashes!

Yet the profile of St Tydecho does not appear to have been carved by any human hand.  If you stand too close to it, then each element is revealed as different bits of rock. The illusion is shattered.

Buches Tydecho: Where the Saint Turned Water into Milk

Buches Tydecho translates as Tydecho's Fold. It's where he met the milkmaid and performed a miracle on the Llaethnant.

By now, you will be entering a stunning landscape. The valley is formed by Ogof Ddu (left) and Llechwedd Du (right - with your track continuing along its slopes), with Aran Fawddwy off in the distance straight before you.

As you catch your breath, it's worth noticing that the stream cutting through the valley runs white. There's a reason for that.

This is the Llaethnant (Milk Brook), which St Tydecho miraculously turned into milk, in order to help out a milkmaid.

We didn't taste the water to ensure that it truly was milk. Some things should be left to faith.

On the other side of the Llaethnant, at the base of Ogof Ddu, there are the ruins of a sheep fold. I read that this was where the milkmaid was crying over her spilled milk, when St Tydecho arrived. However, I couldn't help considering that milk doesn't come from sheep - unless you're a lamb - so I'd expect this legend to have more cows in it.

What I did notice is that immediately above the ruins are the distinct remains of an earthwork. In fact, the sheep fold looked more like a doorway to that than anything large enough to corral sheep.

I did wonder if the legend had therefore lost something in translation. Should we be noting that - perhaps the remains of a much larger corral, or even an early Iron Age settlement - instead of the tumble-down stones before it? Either way, this is the legendary Buches Tydecho.

Buches Tydecho Alongside the Llaethnant

Unfortunately most of my pictures of this landmark had a huge raindrop in the middle. This is the best of a bad lot, viewed from further along the trail.
Image: Buches Tydecho
Image: Buches Tydecho
Photography by Jo Harrington

Finding Ffynnon Dydecho and Gwely Tydecho

They are at Landranger #175 SH 894218. I wish you much better luck than I had!

This is the point at which my friend and I went awry in our attempt to find landmarks dedicated to St Tydecho. Though I should say that I messed that one up. She was merely along for company and the pretty scenery. I was navigating.

We followed the trail all the way to the deep, awe-inspiring waterfall of Creunant Y Briddell. Then continued on the zig-zag mountainside track into the range beyond. Please do feel free to emulate us, if you wish to view amazing landscapes. But if you're here for St Tydecho, then turn around now, you've missed the turning.

My trouble is that so did we. Therefore what follows are my best guesses, based on descriptions and co-ordinates, without having been personally verified. We were so close!  We walked past it twice!

Image: Route to Gwely Tydecho and Ffynnon Dydecho
Image: Route to Gwely Tydecho and Ffynnon Dydecho

Once you're parallel to Buches Tydecho (on the other side of the Llaethnant), you need to turn right, then right again, into a hidden cleft in the slopes of Llechwedd Du. It is here that you will find two of Tydecho's most famous places, and the ultimate destination for Medieval pilgrims.

The big question is where?  I've highlighted two routes and it will be one of them. But until I'm able to return (or someone else goes there first), I can't confirm which is correct. My best guess is that labelled number one, with the other being my second choice.

Number one best matches the co-ordinates on the Landranger map (#175 SH 894218), plus features on the mountain-side which look about right. Only the second is true of number two.

If you do know (or nip there to discover it), please do comment and put me out of my misery.

Finding Ffynnon Dydecho

These are the directions to Ffynnon Dydecho (Tydecho's Well) that I had noted down:

  • Turn right off the main pathway
  • Turn right again into a cleft
  • Look down to find a large rectangular basin filled with water
  • Look above it, to the left, to spot a foot wide circular basin also filled with water.

The second basin is Ffynnon Dydecho. At its base are five holes, which match the saint's finger-tips. It's said that if the basin is emptied, it will mysteriously fill up again.

This cold spring water has been used for centuries to cure all manner of ailments. The water of Tydecho's Well was deemed especially good for rheumatism. (Though how anyone thus suffering would get up there, I don't know.)

Great book (which I own) for discovering more holy waters in Wales.

Gwely Tydecho Directions

These are the instructions for finding Gwely Tydecho (St Tydecho's Bed) that I wrote down for my trek:

  • Climb up the steep slope above Ffynnon Dydecho
  • Stop at the base of the cliff-face
  • Look for a large rectangular rock shelf, with a rowan tree beside it.

Tydecho's Bed is not where he slept, but where he meditated upon the world and communed with his maker.

For centuries, the monks who followed in his stead held their vigils here too. At least one night on that rock shelf traditionally resulted in visions, clarity and/or peace of mind.

Accordingly, Gwely Tydecho was the ultimate destination for those Medieval Catholics undertaking a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Tydecho.

Stay for as long as your spirit needs you to be there. Then return back to Llanmawddwy Church.

100 Greatest Walks

This book has directions and a map to Ffynnon Dydecho (at least) on page 182.

The snippet that I could read placed Tydecho's Well at Landranger #175 SH896217, which is precisely where my route 1 would place it!

Potential Third Way to St Tydecho's Well and Bed

Logically, I am least confident about this one. Instinctively, I have to admit it is my favourite option.

After much scouring of maps and descriptions upon where to locate Ffynnon Dydecho and Gwely Tydecho, I came up with the most likely two options for that right turn off the mountain pass. But zooming in on Google Earth gave me a third route, wherein I think I can even see those landmark features.

But I've failed in locating it before by relying solely on such things, and this seems slightly too far east to match the map co-ordinates.

Nevertheless, for completeness, I will include my possible third route to St Tydecho's Bed and Well. Take it with as many pinches of salt as you care to supply.  (The location of the fold and head are definite, while 1 and 2 match the aerial view already given above.)

Image: Potential third candidate for St Tydecho's Trail
Image: Potential third candidate for St Tydecho's Trail

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Updated: 04/05/2015, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 10/08/2014

In the Tydecho-Maelgwn story, we're pretty much told this. St Tydecho's oxen are ploughing the field, then he harnesses deer to do it too. So yep, his blue stone could easily have been set in place with cattle.

frankbeswick on 09/28/2014

Coincidence! I was watching a tape recording of the programme on Stonehenge tonight, and the question of the manner in which the stones were moved came up. Everyone forgets one simple fact, Britain was a pastoral society whose economy was based on cattle. Oxen could easily have moved the stones. Britain was replete with cattle, and if you read Francis Pryor's book Britain BC, you see how cattle shaped the East Anglian landscape, and they must have shaped other parts of Britain as well. There were enough oxen to move the stones. Note that Scotland and Ireland carried on a pastoral economy until the late Middle Ages.

JoHarrington on 09/28/2014

The thought had absolutely occurred to me. It would have been a whole lot easier to get those blue stones into Llanmawddwy than onto Salisbury Plain. The Mawddwy would have been the way in, after sailing them across Cardigan Bay. Though my respect goes out to them then, if they got the stone up THAT mountain side.

You have hit precisely on where I was going with this. :)

frankbeswick on 09/28/2014

Blue rock. Stonehenge blue stones, which derived from the Prescelli Hills in South Wales. Might Maelgwyn's landmark blue rock be significant in this respect?

JoHarrington on 09/28/2014

Yes! And it was also the thing which I would have most liked to find out there, but none of the Medieval texts give us anything that could form a map. I know the vicinity, but not the rock itself.

Ember on 09/25/2014

Oooh... I'm definitely starting to blend things in my mind then. The landmark I think I was thinking of was a blue rock, and has to do with Maelgwn Gwynedd right? Which is another thing you were tying back to Druidry unrelated to St. Tydecho.

^ This is me attempting to sort it out, but also putting it down for you to correct if I've just mixed everything up XD

JoHarrington on 09/25/2014

I've caught it a few times, particularly in Wales, and even more especially regarding the Arthurian personnel.

This fills you in on a bit more detail, regarding what Ember mentioned: http://www.reddit.com/r/HistoryWales/... There's more notes in the comments section.

It's just something I was musing over, but it's nowhere near proved, nor even adequately in the realms of circumstantial evidence. But certainly not disproved either.

JoHarrington on 09/25/2014

Ember - the theory about the three names (now updated to four) was separate to the landmark thing. Sorry, I must confuse the proverbial out of you sometimes!

frankbeswick on 09/25/2014

One problem when dealing with legends is that different persons can be conflated in the popular mind. This is the case with Robin Hood, and it has almost certainly happened elsetimes.

Ember on 09/24/2014

I'm sorry, because you explained it more than once (but I remember/understand more each time at least)... but the missing thing you were looking for was important for tying together a name theory of yours right? You were saying three different people were the same? Or is the thing you were looking for not actually related to the theory? XD


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