The Walking Pilgrim

Pilgrim routes in N Wales

". . . These very seas
are baptised. The parish
has a saint's name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. . . ."

from R.S. Thomas, The Moon in Lleyn Amazon link


map


Introduction

There has been a remarkable increase of interest in pilgrimage in recent years, and a truly vast number of publications and websites have resulted (www.pilgrimsprogress.org.uk is an excellent starting point). Wales has been somewhat neglected, but recently there has been a flurry of publications (see below for selected list). Almost all the publications seem to think pilgrims are people who drive around in cars, something I find difficult to understand. For this reason, I decided to set up these pages, which suggest routes for walking to/from the main historic pilgrim shrines in N Wales.

Pilgrimage seems to be common to most if not all religions, and a physical journey is an obvious metaphor for the journey through life. In many parts of the world, a journey to places associated with founders of, or other key figures in, a religion is still central to life. Medieval Christianity was no exception, with journeys to the places where Christ lived (the 'Holy Land') and, as the Middle East is a long way away for Europeans, to places associated with other holy people - particularly where the physical remains of such people (relics) were, and even more particularly when they acquired a reputation for curing illness. In the popular mind, pre-Christian sites such as wells and groves of trees never lost their holiness, and churches and shrines were often built on or around them.

In Britain and many other western countries, most of the pilgrimage 'industry' was swept away with the Reformation, and relics and roods destroyed. By the nineteenth century, many churches in Wales were in poor condition and were substantially renovated, restored or even rebuilt. Ironically, this 'Gothic revival' often obliterated genuine medieval remnants. Nevertheless, a surprising amount of remains of the pilgrimage way of life survives, and is still there for those who seek it out - whether for religious or cultural reasons, or out of simple curiosity or a love of walking through the countryside.

Quo Vadis? Where to Head For

In the heyday of pilgrimage in the late Middle Ages, there must have been literally thousands of destinations for pilgrims. Most of these were of local interest only, and only 2 Welsh saints, David and Winefride, were officially recognised by Rome. The shrine of the former is of course the eponymous St Davids, in S Wales. Winefride's well became so well known, the town that grew up around it was called simply Holywell or, in Welsh, Treffynnon ('well-town'). She was also associated with Gwytherin and Shrewsbury. In N Wales, though, the most popular destination was probably Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli in Welsh), a curious destination, as there was no real shrine there, just the reputation of being the resting place of 20,000 saints, plus a monastery thought to have been Wales' first. Perhaps the attraction was its remoteness, and it remains a difficult place to get to.

Even if Wales only had 3 main destinations, it was however rich in 'unofficial' sites, both wells and sites associated with other non-sanctified holy people. Even a brief look at a map of Wales shows large numbers of Llan- placenames. A llan was an enclosure like the English '-ton' suffix but, unlike the latter (generally named after the secular leader founding the settlement), a llan with its church was dedicated either to a saint or to a holy person who founded the enclosure or was otherwise associated with it. Where these places have a well nearby, or are set in a circular or oval churchyard, that is often a pointer to pre-Christian origins. Ancient yew trees are another sign of ancient origins. Those holy people who were especially highly regarded attracted more people, and their church became a larger affair called a clas. These were part mother church, part religious school, and were destinations for many early pilgrims; unlike in continental/Benedictine monasteries, community members married and abbots often passed on leadership to their son. These places often do not correspond to modern population centres, which leads to large churches in tiny hamlets. When the Normans arrived they imposed a diocesan structure on this (and also introduced monasteries in the continental sense), but even so none of the four medieval cathedrals (in N Wales, Bangor and St Asaph) is in a large town today.

Where to Start

Medieval pilgrims started from home. As I live in Chester, gateway to North Wales, this is easy for me. Those who live in N Wales will also have no difficulties. Others can also start at home, or take public transport to a starting point.

Routes

Several of the publications below delineate the historical routes. For modern walkers, the original introduction to my Caminos de Santiago pages discusses the problems facing anyone wanting to follow such an historical route today. These problems also apply to Wales, even though much of the country is sparsely populated with few motorways and other obstacles. There is generally a dense network of public footpaths, but the sparse population means these are sometimes little used, overgrown, etc; it also means there are few waymarked/promoted walking routes to use, as there are in England.

This website takes the three main destinations - Bardsey, Holywell and St Davids - links them together (only the N section of the latter is included) and with Shrewsbury and Chester, and looks for routes avoiding main roads and built-up areas as much as possible, and visiting as many of the minor pilgrim destinations - such as clas and llan churches, the later (largely Cistercian) monasteries, wells and high crosses (the oldest of which are more or less the only surviving monuments of early medieval Christianity) - as possible. As a bonus, I include the interesting modern revival of the shrine at Pennant Melangell.

When you start looking for possible routes, perhaps on a road atlas, you think there is little of interest from one end to the other. However, when you look in more detail for religiously important sites, you soon find that the main problem becomes deciding on which sites to restrict yourself to.

I would stress that the routes listed here are suggestions, and only provide an outline for a route. This should enable you to get from A to B, but you will need to be able to read maps and relate them to the countryside - don't expect yellow arrows as on the Camino. This is in the medieval spirit, as medieval pilgrims had no waymarks to show them the way; there was no 'definitive' route, as there is on a modern walking trail. In Machado's much quoted words 'no hay camino, se hace camino al andar' [there is no way, the way makes itself by being walked]. Or, if you prefer TS Eliot: 'if you came this way, taking the route you would be likely to take, from the place you would be likely to come from' (Little Gidding). It is, though, perfectly possible that the church and/or secular (i.e. local councils) authorities would be interested in promoting a route by waymarking, producing a leaflet or guide, or other means; feel free to organise this!

Any corrections or other suggestions for improvements are welcome.

Maps

Although following a simple route can be done with the 1:50,000 Landranger OS maps, I would strongly recommend using the more detailed 1:25,000 Explorer and Outdoor Leisure ones. These not only mark field boundaries, and thus facilitate finding the path (footpaths are not always as clear on the ground as they are on the map); they also mark wells - even some historically important wells are not marked on Landranger maps. To help find the route I'm recommending, the route pages link to the online Ordnance Survey maps at Openspace. At the top of the route pages is an 'open map' button which opens an overview map in another window in your browser so you can look at maps at the same time as reading the text. Clicking on the OS icons map icon in the text creates a marker in the appropriate place on the map, and you can use the map zoom to view these in more detail.

Abbreviations used

N, S, W, E for the points of the compass
C for century, e.g. C14 means 14th-century
OS = Ordnance Survey (maps)
L = left, R = right
for CPAT and CADW see below

Some background reading (click on Amazon link to order from Amazon)

  • Pilgrimage: A Welsh Perspective by Terry John & Mona Rees (Gomer Press, 2002 Amazon link) - excellent academic-type study, comparable with Pilgrimage in Medieval England by Diana Webb (Hambledon & London, 2000 Amazon link), and Pilgrimage in Medieval Scotland by Peter Yeoman (Batsford/Historic Scotland, 1999 Amazon link).
  • Every Pilgrim's Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland by Andrew Jones (Canterbury Press, 2002 Amazon link). Though not only about Wales, the author is Rural Dean for the Llyn peninsula and Rector of several parish churches on the Bardsey pilgrim routes. Deals with spiritual aspects of pilgrimage as well as listing sites.
  • The Holy Wells of Wales by Francis Jones (University of Wales Press, 1954, pbk edn 1992 Amazon link); the definitive work - hard to imagine there's anything more to say on the subject. One snag is there are no grid references, so matching the descriptions to the wells marked on OS maps can be hard. There is a list of some of the main ones on the Celtic Mist website.
  • The Old Parish Churches of North Wales by Mike Salter (Folly Publications, 1993 Amazon link). Part of a series listing churches in Wales and the Marches, obviously a labour of love. Comprehensive list, but drily factual, and some errors.
  • Country Churchyards in Wales by Donald Gregory (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2003 Amazon link). The author's selection, with lots of interesting information; I am indebted to the author for pointing me to some absolute gems.
  • The Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT in the route pages) website contains an excellent database of churches in those (former) counties. Includes extracts from the Penguin Buildings of Wales series ('Pevsner', though the Welsh ones were not written by him). There is also a section on historic landscapes, some of which is relevant.
  • In Denbighshire, the County Council has produced an excellent 64-page colour brochure Enjoy Medieval Denbighshire, and a related free leaflet Tracing Medieval Denbighshire. Much of the text of the latter is on the related website.
  • Flintshire and Denbighshire have combined with Wrexham Maelor for tourist purposes to create an area called N Wales Borderlands. This produces a series of colour brochures, one of which is called Sacred Places, which contains some relevant information, though also duplicates some of what is in Denbigh's brochure.
  • CADW publish A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales, in 4 volumes: Clwyd and Powys by Helen Burnham (1995 Amazon link), and Gwynedd by Frances Lynch (2001 Amazon link) are the relevant ones for N Wales. A selection of sites, with emphasis on those looked after by CADW. 'Cadw' is Welsh for 'to preserve'; they are the government body responsible for historic monuments in Wales. www.cadw.wales.gov.uk
  • The old parish churches in Wales belong to the Church in Wales, part of the Anglican communion but now separate from the Church of England. Their website contains a useful list of parishes by diocese with dedication and grid reference for the church(es); N Wales is split into 2 dioceses, Bangor in the W, and St Asaph in the E. The Vale of Clwyd Deanery also has a good website.
  • For potted biographies (more correctly, hagiographies - much of this is based on information written down centuries after the saints died) of Welsh saints, see David Nash Ford's Early British Kingdoms website.
  • Bernard Wellings at the Bryn Holcombe Hotel in Colwyn Bay has some photos and info on some N Wales churches on his Wales Directory website.

Autumn 2002