Wales proved to be the most surprising region of my travels through the U.K. I had not attempted any systematic study of the Welsh until recent months. I had some vague notions of a coal mines and poverty, largely from a few films half remembered. And maybe there is that, but I didn't see it, spending the better part of 4 days crisscrossing the region. True, there is a lot of industrialization in the far south of Wales, but no more so than you would expect from coastal areas along major shipping routes. In terms of natural beauty, Wales takes second place to none on the island. Without gushing about it, the Welsh countryside--south, north and central--is simply stunning. And, the roads are wider and traffic a bit calmer, which means that you can actually savor the beauty, maybe even pull off the side of the road and walk about--imagine that! I include the Welsh borderlands--Shropshire and Herefordshire--in this general commendation, as well.
I realize that I sometimes draw sweeping generalizations from limited observations. That said, I would have to say that yes, the Welsh are different from the English. From what I saw, I would say that they are maybe more boisterous, a bit louder, and more direct--none of this English standing on ceremony. Of all the places I visited in the U.K., Wales is the one region that I would definitely contemplate a return visit.
As in Wessex and Cornwall, my itinerary in Wales had to be trimmed due to rain, my miscalculation of realistic traveling times in the U.K, and my own absent-mindedness (on my first day in Wales, I had to first double back and retrieve the luggage I left behind in Cornwall--adding 140 miles to that day's travels.) The main casualties were the elimination of the Church of St. Tewdric (Arthur's grandfather), the Cathedral at Cardiff, and most importantly, my trek to the spot where King Arthur may be buried (not in Glastonbury). Theories about King Arthur are something of a cottage industry in the U.K. The places that play it up the most (Glastonbury and Tintangel) are probably the sites with the least connection to the actual historical figure. For despite the stories and medieval myth-making that came later, there is at the heart of it, a real man, Athrwys. Like I say, there are plenty of theories to pick from, but the one that I believe has the most historical legs to it is this one. I had actually built my entire Welsh itinerary around visiting Mynydd-y-Gaer. But due to running hours late, by the time I finally reached the site, it late in the day, steadily raining, and I realized that I would not be able to drive as close to the site as I had anticipated. I was still a ways from my inn for the night, so I took a deep breath and chalked it up as something that was not meant to be.
At St. Cadog's Church
The fascinating thing about Athrwys is that he is right in the mix of the early Welsh saints and missionaries to Cornwall and Brittany. I have it all charted out (but that is at home), but I do remember that he was a close kinsman of King Brychan, and of course, all of King Brychan's children. There are stories of Athrwys visiting his kinsman, Nectan, at St. Nectan's Glen in Cornwall. He is a kinsman of St. Cadog (of more later), and of St. Govan (Gawain). So, the pursuit of Arthur (Athrwys) was really not at all removed from the main scope of my inquiries--the early Welsh saints.
At. St. Cadog's Church
The highlight of my time in southern Wales (in the Vale of Glamorgan), was the Church of St. Cadog (or Cadoc) in the village of Llancarfan. The present church dates to about 1200, but was built on a monastic foundation laid by St. Cadog, grandson of King Brychan, in the sixth century. Llancarfan is as pretty a village as can be found on the island. The church, unlike many, shows signs of active parish life, and interestingly enough, seemed to be of an extremely "high" nature. If not known as being part of the Anglican communion, it showed every sign of being a Catholic church, with holy water outside the door, a sign saying that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved here, and a statue of the Virgin Mary, so placed for devotion.
At St. Cadog's Church
The unique thing about this church, however, was the discovery several years ago of some incredible "wall paintings" underneath the limewashed walls. The British are very careful, for some reason, not to call it "iconography." Now admittedly, it is not of the same quality, or as stylized as Orthodox iconography, but at the end of the day, that is what it is. As the church literature itself maintains, "encouraged by waves of Protestant reforms, the Puritan in us whitewashed away the decorative narratives of culture and belief." The impression of English churches, even if you like the soaring Gothic nature of many of them, is that they are, well, austere and stark. Llancarfan (and other churches) show that it was not always thus. The old English church was colorful, with walls covered in iconography. Candles would have been lit everywhere, with shrines to various saints filling in the sides of the churches. With the Reformation of the 1530s, and the Puritanism of the 1640s, the walls were whitewashed, the shrines busted-up, and the devotion to the saints prohibited. So, what we think as a typically English style of worship is a relatively new thing, not 500 years old--and the way things are going, it may not reach 500 years.
Pembrokeshire coast, above St. Govan's
At St. Brychan's Church, Nevern
I next visited the Church of St. Illtud in Llantwit Major. This is one of the site of the oldest center of learning in the British isles. St. Illtud was a disciple of St. Cadog who founded the first monastic school in Britain. The church is one of the longest in the U.K., built in phases from about 1100 to 1300. But I did not come to see the building, but rather their display of early Celtic stone crosses and pillars--primarily the "Samson Stone" of St. Samson.
Shrine of St. Melangel
I stayed one night on the Pembrokeshire coast--this to be close to St. Govan's. This saint (also known as Gawain in the Arthurian legends) was a member of King Brychan's extensive connections, and retired here as a hermit. His hermitage is wedged between the rocks, underneath the cliffs in Pembroke. It's a lonely site, but I suppose that's what being a hermit is all about. I skipped St. David's Cathedral, knowing it would press me for time as I was venturing into central and northern Wales. But before I left southern Wales, I did stop at Nevern, the see the ancient stones in the churchyard there. One dates to the 6th-century, and the Celtic cross stone to the 9th-century.
St. Melangel's grave
My stop in central Wales was the Church at Pennant Melangel, hidden at the end of the prettiest valley in the U.K. There are Orthodox churches in the U.K, and there's a monastery or two on the island. But outside of these sites, I would say the most Orthodox place on the island is this remote church--a true place of pilgrimage. The pieces of the shrine to St. Melangel--smashed in the Reformation--has been carefully reconstructed. The grave of St. Melangel has been discovered in what was once the altar of the church. The church has a number of icons, and it is clear that they know what to do with them. They are obviously placed where they can be venerated. There is some interest in the U.K. these days in things "spiritual." So, you have those who go on pilgrimage, but are not exactly sure why, as evidenced by the leaving of feathers and other odd items on St. Melangel's grave. The void is real and the yearning is real. My prayer is that this may grow into something real. I would recommend this as a pilgrimage site to any Orthodox Christian.
I visited two of the three holy wells I had intended to see in northern Wales. My favorite was the well of St. Dyfnog, in St. Dyfnog's Church in Llanrhaeadr. The 13th-century church is noted for its "Jesse Window," a stained glass depicting the ancestry of Jesus. Amazingly enough, even this was too much for the Calvinists. During the English Civil War, the window was dismantled and hidden-away, only to be dug-up and re-installed in 1823, I believe. The interior of the church also contains a carved golden pelican. The religious symbolism is that a pelican will pick at it's own breast to bleed and feed its young. The porch once contained a carved image of St. Dyfnog, but of course, this was hacked out as well. All this behavior puts me in mind of the countless churches or former churches visited in the Balkans, Turkey and Georgia where the Turks would deface the images. Both Puritan and Turk wore the same ideological and fundamentalist blinders. But the inside of the church did not interest me much. I'm not overly impressed with stained glass, and the rest of the church was as stark as most. What I wanted to see was at the end of a trail that snaked through the churchyard and up a wooded ravine. Several hundred feet beyond was the Holy Well, the spring of St. Dyfnog. Here he established a hermitage, and it became a pilgrimage site from the very earliest days. I said my prayers here, not in the church.
St. Dyfnog's Holy Well
The well of St. Winifride was my last stop. This is the most famous holy well in Wales--if not the entire U.K. For a variety of reasons, it was my least favorite. It has always been a site of Catholic pilgrimage, even during the darkest days of England's anti-Catholicism. Elizabeth I wanted to appoint a commission to investigate the purported healing properties of the well. The pilgrims kept coming anyway. In 1687, King James II and his wife, Mary of Modena, made a pilgrimage to St. Winifride's. She had given birth to and buried 10 children, the last 3 years earlier. She bathed in the well and they prayed for a son. The next year, for better or for worse, she gave birth to the James, "the Old Pretender." The site is maintained by the Catholic Church. They do a good job of presenting the hagiography of St. Winefride, and clear-up some of the latter accretions to her story (such as the fact that her brother avenged her death by killing her assailant, which is more believable that the earth swallowing him up.) You have to go through their gift shop, however, full of treacly, sentimental sweet Catholic kitsch. In all fairness, I would make the same statement about the Orthodox gift shop I recently visited at Curtea de Arges, Romania. There was nothing in there about St. Winifride, specifically. The slick, generic marketing of the site was just a little off-putting is all I am saying.
My visit to Wales would not be complete without telling of my flat tire in Llannefydd. Frankly, I had met too much oncoming traffic on country lanes just barely wide enough for one vehicle, with my response being to hug the edge of the hedge on the left. After a while, that took a toll on my left front tire. I limped into the church parking lot at Llannefydd, where I was to stay that night. I have changed many a tire in my day, and so I got out the spare and jack and equipment and commenced the process. After I had jacked-up the car, I noticed that my lug wrench did not fit the lug nuts on the tire. I was frustrated beyond measure. I walked down to the Hawk and Buckle where I was to stay that night. There was good crowd in the pub. I talked to the young girl working the bar (the owner's daughter) and asked to borrow a lug wrench, in the hope that it would fit. With the borrowed lug wrench in hand, I trudged back to the site of my misfortune. As it turns out, that lug wrench was the wrong size, as well. About that time, two small cars swerved into the parking lot, and six of the lads from the pub noisily piled out, speaking in Welsh, no less. They were all over my situation. One squatted down next to me and I showed him my problem. He reached into the tire-changing paraphanalia and pulled out a tweezer-looking thing. He then reached in and pulled off a little plastic cover over every nut--after which removed, would render my lug wrench exactly the right size! He was going to go ahead and change the tire from there, but I wouldn't let him. No doubt they had a good laugh later on over my ineptitude. I offered to buy a round of drinks at the Hawk and Buckle, but they had to get on. Just as suddenly and noisily, they sped off out of the village. I could live with people like that.