The North Wales Pilgrim Path

by frankbeswick

A pilgrim way in an ancient land hallowed by years of use is an inspiring journey.

The spiritual is never far from the surface in the so-called Celtic domains of the British Isles, and in recent years ancient pathways have been trodden by celebrity walkers selected from a variety of faiths and none for a televised journey from one spiritual key point to another. Pilgrims vary in number from nine to seven. As the program is being screened for Easter there is an inevitable Christian weighting to the shrines selected, but the travelers have been selected from people of tolerant and friendly disposition, some genuine searchers for the true and the good.

Picture courtesy of asakh, of Pixabay

Pilgrimage

Pilgrimages used to be part and parcel of life in Britain, but they were seriously curtailed by the Protestant reformation, which was imposed on the people by a small minority. But human nature always triumphs, so in more recent years there has been a resurgence of pilgrimage. The most popular pilgrimages lead truth and goodness seekers to ancient and mediaeval holy places once eagerly sought by our forebears. But there are more modern sites such as Lourdes in France, wherever a holy person has lived or a spiritual experience been had, as if places become sanctified at such locations.. These are locations which some thinkers believe are thin places, where the veil between this world and the holy is not as thick as it is elsewhere. Many people are convinced that such places have an atmosphere, which they attribute to the spirituality of devout worshippers having a mysterious imprint on the stones. I don't know about that, but why not? Maybe the  quietness, even silence of such places alerts us to reality obscured by the noise and bustle of daily life. 

And so, in Spring 2024 seven pilgrims set off to travel nearly two hundred miles from Flint Castle, not the traditional starting point for the walk. The four women and three men included a Roman Catholic woman, two Church of England males, one of whom was a philosophy graduate, a Muslim male, a Jewish woman, a Jain woman, and one who seemed to be a genuine searcher. The ethos of the group was friendly.  They would stay in pre-booked hostelries on the journey

The first destination was St Winefride's Well, where they were greeted by a Catholic bishop, who exuded a pleasant and welcoming demeanour. Most of the pilgrims went into the sacred waters, circling the bath three times, but one of the women demurred. Despite being agnostic she sought a blessing from the bishop, and was happy and edified to receive it. The group walked on to Gwitherin, the village which was the site of the now demolished convent where St Winefride lived for many years. 

The final part of this  leg of the journey led them to one of the several pilgrim churches en route, LLangelynnin, a sixth century church on the lower slopes of the Carnaddau Mountain Range, on the Western side of the beautiful Conwy Valley. There they were welcomed by the priest, a female, who is a specialist pioneer priest, one whose mission is to found new communities. Here on the green slopes of this rugged range they sat in the church grounds and individually discussed spirituality with the priest, all the while overlooking the lush green of the Welsh hill country. The conversation was quiet and respectful Here were several seekers after truth talking over matters of serious import and where the voyagers stood on their journey through life. A pleasant session.

After the first episode I said to Maureen that I felt at a loss to satisfactorily express the full play of religious intercommunication and the rich spiritual atmosphere that was being communicated. She advised, wait until it is complete. Wise words. 

Traditional Welsh Church

Traditional Welsh Church
Traditional Welsh Church
14230021

Towards the waterfall

As the Sun rose over the near silence of the mountain morning the pilgrims breakfasted and eschewing the rocky higher slopes,  hiked along the trail through the mixture of bracken, grass and gorse of the lower slopes, heading for the large cascade of Aber Falls,  the last stage of a river as it tumbles seaward. The pilgrims, some of whom were inexperienced in outdoor pursuits, were in one or two cases awestruck. Then they set off for their destination, the spectacular cascade of Aber Falls, which was for one pilgrim a new experience. I think that the waterfall inspired awe and was primarily a time for enjoyment, testimony to the enjoyability of the spiritual, which is not gloomy as some secular people think.

The distance was not far compared with other pilgrim paths, a mere hundred and ninety miles from their starting point at Flint Castle, so there was time for a detour, with the locations chosen to adhere to the spiritual theme of the journey. So the group was divided into two for a day, one group going up Yr Wydfa, known in English as Snowdon, while the other visited Anglesey, the one time centre of the ancient British religion of druidry.. Both groups followed a similar conversational path, eschewing theological discussions to concentrate on the spiritual and emotional problems that various individuals among them felt. This was not a departure from the task at hand, for religions are often about healing body, mind and spirit, so the easing of spiritual burdens as happened in the  case of a woman coming to terms with a divorce was a welcome experience, while the Muslim man was able to come to some acceptance of the death of his beloved mother.

But was Yr Wydfa a spiritual experience? The key to understanding the climb up the highest mountain in Wales and England is the concept of liminality, the idea that some places are thin, which means that the other world shines through them. Liminal places include mountain tops and sites of great natural beauty. Druidry, the religion of the Britons, believed that the divine was encountered through the medium of nature, and the pilgrims became acutely aware of this concept in their mountain walk.. 

The Anglesey group did two things, visiting a boggy pool   where votive offerings had been found, including a slave chain. The discovery of the link with slavery provoked profound reflection. Then they went on to a megalithic tomb which seemed to be the remnant of a barrow, an artificial mound used to inter the dead, in this cave a stone age community who lived and were buried together. This prompted the pilgrims to ponder upon death, and think about the ways in  which beliefs about ultimate things differ among individual communities have elements in common.  The Muslim, who despite being a very big man carrying much weight, had shown impressive perseverance on the walk, had never experienced any religion other than Islam, Judaism and Christianity came to see that the tomb was testimony to the fact that  there are beliefs other than those three, though the trip included one Jain, so he was being prepared for a  new experience. 

Terminus?

The remaining part of the pilgrimage was a walk along footpaths bordering the Irish Sea with Anglesey in view  across the narrow  channel of the Menai Straits, a place of fast flowing waters. Having walked through the lovely LLeyn Peninsula, they at last came upon the Church of St Owen's, the traditional last stop ere they would reach the crossing to Bardsey Island, in the Celtic view the island on the edge of the world, the spiritual world, that is, the island of twenty thousand saints. To die on Bardsey was considered to guarantee resurrection, and it was one of the main pilgrim sites of Europe. There has been a church there since the sixth or seventh centuries.

The visit was a testimony to the enduring power of ritual. A traditional ritual of this church was for pilgrims to take a pebble from the  shingle beach and write a name or a brief message on it. Then the pebble would be placed on a cairn in church grounds, blessed by the minister and after a year returned to the sea to be cast on the beach again in the cycle of time. Several pilgrims had something that they wanted to let go. Four, three women and one man, were grieving for lost loved ones and a divorced woman was trying to let go of the consequences of divorce. The Jain woman felt guilty at not being present when her mother died, whereas another woman chose a pebble with quartz veins running through it as a symbol of the healing of cracks or damage in her mind that were being healed by the pilgrim experience. Two pilgrims were autistic and they felt that in the pilgrim group they encountered people who did not despise or reject them, but took them seriously and listened to what they had to say. 

The end of the pilgrimage was an anticlimax, or was it? The boat trip to Bardsey had to be cancelled because of bad and worsening weather and sea conditions. Obviously, pilgrims were disappointed, but one of the males a non-practicing Anglican Christian,  so far unmentioned in this article, suggested emphatically that it was as though they were meant to finish without the visit as it was a sign that the pilgrimage of life was not over and they all had a journey to complete. All concurred with him. So the travelers ascended the grassy hillside to walk to a vantage point where they could rest their eyes on their destination. The man who made this suggestion has vowed to return, but when he is older, he lightly suggested ninety five, he would return. We are reminded of the tradition of dying on Bardsey. The pilgrims parted as friends and went their ways.

 

Reflections

To willingly watch is to participate, I vicariously participated in the pilgrimage, a pleasure made the more poignant when I am forced to recall that as a walker partly disabled by incurable disease I am unlikely ever to walk this journey. It was an act of multi-religious witness to the power of religion to inspire, guide and heal. The atmosphere of the pilgrimage was one of joy, which was communicated to the watchers like an infusion. We saw positive religion, belief at its best which creates bonds of love between people of different faiths, and this was an antidote to the toxic ideologies of persecutors throughout the world. Watching this program made me happy. 

Of course there were tears. The female pilgrims wept more than the males, two of whom did not weep at all, but the Muslim released his inner masculine restraint and wept for grief at his mother's death, and no one criticized him for being too soft or unmanly. This supportive experience probably did him much good. We can be reminded of the tradition in the Orthodox Church that values weeping as a sign of spiritual development.

The pilgrimage reminded viewers of the great significance of ritual. In Europe the Protestant Reformation downplayed ritual, using it as a minimum needed to make a service work, while the Catholic Church has always accepted it. But the ritual at the beach where pilgrims took pebbles and had them blessed was an act that they found profoundly significant, even though it is a minor ritual of the church. Ritual is a way of relating to the divine in community with others. The pilgrim who was blessed by the bishop found the experience meaningful.

But what did the experience mean to me who was watching it. I was happy at the sense of innocent joy of this spiritual journey through religious culture and the beauties of nature. The good fellowship of the pilgrims was an emotional boost. I have already referred to my limited mobility. Just seeing the pilgrims walking through the hills was an inspirational experience. I am unlikely to ever manage a walk like that, but I can also rejoice that others can do it. 

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Updated: 04/18/2024, frankbeswick
 
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frankbeswick 27 days ago

There could be some done, but thebsoil is acidic, so bones, which are calcium based, would decay

DerdriuMarriner 27 days ago

Thank you for your comment in answer to my previous, same-day observations and questions.

In another direction from Genghis Khan ;-D, Bardsey Island intrigues me. Online sources list it as burial places of King Arthur, Merlin and 20,000 saints.

Might there have been some scanning done to number how many bones occur on Bardsey Island?

frankbeswick 27 days ago

I have not seen it.

DerdriuMarriner 27 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous, same-day observations and questions.

The Severin book got my attention when I immersed myself in Genghis Khan-related materials because of the 2007 release of the film Mongol.

Have you seen the aforementioned film?

frankbeswick 28 days ago

The connections between Tokharian and Gaelic are mysterious, especially as a great landmass separate them. But not all liminal sites overlooked the ocean. But strangely the mongol peoples, who knew not the sea, used a word related to ocean for the vast expanse of heaven above, a piece of information I took from TIM severin's book, In Search of Genghis Khan.

DerdriuMarriner 28 days ago

The second paragraph to the second subheading, Towards the waterfall, advises us that " Liminal places include mountain tops and sites of great natural beauty."

Elizabeth Wayland, in The mummies of Ürümchi, about the Tarim river basin mummies of Iranian DNA and some connection with Gaelic-speaking ancients through their Tocharian language, ascribes to Gaelic ancestors alignments to one another by beautiful, high, ocean-overlooking sites with defensible fortresses and horse-raising and textile-making activities.

Might that mean that Gaelic-ancestored sites matter as liminal places?

frankbeswick on 04/20/2024

I love long walks, and walking down coastal paths in beautiful green scenery with a rich cultural history ticks all the boxes, as the British idiom goes.I am hopeful that my currently successful program of physiotherapy will enable me to improve my damaged walking powers and that I can get back to longer walking. I know that I will never get fully well, but some hope of improvement remains.

Tolovaj on 04/20/2024

Thank you for this lovely presentation. I am all in for long walks, no matter how are they are called, but knowing the background defiitely adds another dimension to the experience.

frankbeswick on 04/19/2024

St Winefrid's Well had the occasional pilgrimage, as did Walsingham

DerdriuMarriner on 04/18/2024

The first paragraph to the first subheading, Pilgrimage, considers that "Pilgrimages used to be part and parcel of life in Britain, but they were seriously curtailed by the Protestant reformation, which was imposed on the people by a small minority."

Is there any one pilgrimage that maintains a continuous history as most popular and most respected?

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