- since 2011 -

Still small voice

Friday, 15 July 2011

The churches of Llyn are celestial in their simplicity, whatever the season

Years ago I saw Julian Cope at a place called Dingwalls in Camden, north London. The former Teardrop Explodes frontman was giving a spoken-word performance about the 'sacred landscape' in his new persona as pre-historian/acid-age shaman. At one point I seem to recall him blowing into some kind of didgeridoo.



Just when I was wishing I'd stayed in to watch the semi-finals of Mastermind, he moved onto the subject of ancient sites. We'd be surprised, he said, at how many there were in Britain and how close they were to everyone - even people in the capital and other big cities. "It's all there, just below the surface," he said in a subsequent newspaper interview. "You can peel it away like the skin of an onion."

Reading Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor, in which London's shadowy palimpsest is the main protagonist, reminded me recently how right Cope was. But you hardly need strip any layers from somewhere like the Llyn peninsula, which positively resonates with the past.

The northern 'arm' of Wales, about which I've blogged before, has over a dozen standing stones, a handful of iron-age hillforts and holy wells, an extinct volcano and a lost valley shrouded in legend. I'm particularly interested in its string of old churches - many of them on a pilgrim route to a holy island with Arthurian lineage, possibly.

All this a couple of hours, tops, by car from the densely populated, light-polluted urban sprawls of England's North West and West Midlands. Historically, fortunately, it's always been fairly inaccessible by land because of Snowdonia but well connected by sea thanks to a 'Celtic Bay' of coastal communities around the Irish Sea.

The first time I really thought about this, I looked at a map of the British Isles and it stared straight back at me like a littoral lost world: a roughly circular sphere of influence that includes modern-day Belfast, Dublin, the Isle of Man, Stranraer, Dumfries, Whitehaven, Barrow, Fleetwood, Preston, Liverpool, the Wirral, Conwy, Caernarfon, Anglesey, and Llyn. Self-sufficient and set apart from mainland Romanised Europe, with churches that reflect this...

Summer at St Cian's

It's afternoon, but it could be late morning or early evening, as if time had stopped. It's unnaturally warm, too, for Wales anyway. The only things in motion are a few bees and a nearby brook that could be babbling, or perhaps even purling.

St Cian's is in the tiny village of Llangian, not far from the main road but easy to miss in this southwest corner of Llyn, with a luxuriant claim to fame. The proliferation of window boxes and hanging baskets on its handful of cottages help explain why this is a frequent winner of 'Most Beautiful Village in Wales'. The bees aren't soft.

The church dates back 800 years. Cian is described as a bard and hermit, and first mentioned in Welsh poems of the late 6th and early 7th centuries. He's also associated with St Peris, the founder of Llanberis, the town in Gwynedd now famous for its pass and mountaineering centre. 'Llan' means place of worship or enclosure.

What's unique and rather extraneous about this church is a small upright pillar in the graveyard, shaped a bit like one of Cope's mystical standing stones, and specifically what's engraved upon it vertically: 'MELI MEDICI MARTINI IACIT'. From the Latin: 'Melus the doctor, son of Martinus, lies here'.

It's unusual to find someone's profession inscribed on a stone like this. It's rarer to find it written in Latin around these parts because, to press the point, Christianity came from the Celtic seaboard rather than Rome. A notice inside the church vestibule says it reflects 'the melting pot of influences circulating around the coastal areas of the Irish Sea in the early Middle Ages'.

Celtic cross, Llangian (left) and Pistyll

Celtic cross, Llangian (left) and Pistyll

Winter at St Beuno's

At Pistyll, on the north coast of Llyn and the cusp between autumn and winter, a cold sun throws the bare spindly branches of the ash trees into sharp relief before the blue-sky vastness of Caernarfon Bay.

Again, if you're not looking for this sweetly serene church you probably won't spot it, at least not from the B-road to Nefyn. Lying in a grassy hollow by a stream, it's much easier to see from the sea. Small and simple like St Cian's, its plan is based upon the long barn of a farm. Part of the landscape, not imposed upon it.

Beuno was a reputed healer in the 6th century, and to this day the floor of the church is strewn with rushes and, three times a year, wild medicinal herbs. He also founded the larger church at Clynnogfawr further east at the gateway to Llyn from mainland North Wales.



All that remains of his original church here at Pistyll is a step at the doorway and a corner stone near what is called the Lepers Window. The rest dates mainly from between the 12th and 15th centuries. The thatched roof was replaced by slate around 120 years ago when a granite floor was also installed below a medieval mural of St Christopher.

Is it still, really, St Beuno's? Lots of historic buildings are added to and embellished over time, even rebuilt completely, in the same way that subjective reality - personal belief - eventually replaces objective fact. It's like the old philosophical riddle: 'This is my grandfather's axe: my father gave it a new handle, and I gave it a new head'. The constituent parts may be renewed, but the essence of the thing is still the same - in this case the church and its unchanging, everlasting truth.

You get like this, all solemn and reverential, wandering around these places. I felt the same way on Iona, the island off Mull in Scotland. The Joshua Tree is playing in your head and you start picturing Cian and Beuno as venerable, beatific beings leading their flock to salvation when they might well have been like Sid James. "Right, this'll have to do - for the church, y'great steaming nit. Sandra, put the kettle on..."

The clumps of mossy earth in the churchyard are unnervingly springy beneath my feet as I lope respectfully-ish around the slabs and headstones, careful not to linger too long in one spot in case, y'know, the ground gives way and I put my foot through someone's coffin.

For all that, I feel closer to a place like this where 'real' people have come for centuries, than some windswept heath where a pair of hairy-arsed grunters once balanced one dirty big stone on top of two others while their mate had a quick Geoff Hurst behind a bush, so that generations of fantasists could dream up theories about solar calendars.

Typical willow tree motif on headstone

Typical willow tree motif on headstone

Some of the headstones have carvings of what I assume are willow trees with draped, feather-like branches. The willow is a traditional symbol of sadness and mourning associated with the Greek myth of Orpheus, the young musician whose wife Eurydice is killed by a snake. He goes to the Underworld to plead for her return, and he's allowed to lead her out on condition that he doesn't turn back to look at her as they leave. Guess what?



Spring at St Hywyn's

Aberdaron is at the end of the peninsula and the start of the sea - literally in St Hywyn's case. Today the bright vernal sun is still low in the sky and the air is chilly. Inside the church, a leaflet invites you 'to take your time, to walk slowly, to tread softly, and to ponder silently'.

Resting against the far wall to the left of the altar are two stones with the names of 6th century monks, Veracius and Senacus, carved upon them. The church was largely rebuilt in the early 12th century - there's a trademark Norman rounded arch above the main entrance - with further additions in the 16th century.

Headstones at Aberdaron

Headstones at Aberdaron

Nature also has wrought change. A third of the churchyard, which tumbles down to the shoreline, has been lost to the sea over the centuries. It's tradition for visitors to build a cairn every year inside the church, from stones brought up from the beach. Names are written on each one and they're all returned to the sea in October.

Hywyn was one of a group of Bretons led by a prince called Cadfan who settled on the nearby island of Ynys Enlli, called Bardsey by the Saxons, to establish a monastery remote from persecution and piracy in that post-Roman lacuna called the Dark Ages.

By the 12th century Bardsey had become a place of pilgrimage, with three visits equal to one trip to Rome. Around the same time it acquired Arthurian status when the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of a paradise called Insula Pomorum or 'Island of the Apples'. The Welsh word for apple tree is 'afallen' - not too speciously removed from Avalon?

Whatever. At roughly the point where Snowdonia meets Llyn, close to the 3,000-year-old coastal hill fort of Dinas Dinlle, is an exotic tree trail in the historic estate of Parc Glynllifon. Among the collection: Giant Redwood, Monkey Puzzle, Japanese Snowbell, Pink Himalayan Rhododendron, and Bardsey Apple - rediscovered on the island in 2000 when it was declared the rarest cultivated apple tree in the world.

'It's afternoon, but it could be late morning or early evening, as if time had stopped. It's unnaturally warm, too, for Wales anyway'


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