Images and Text from the Silent Eye Workshop: Whispers in the West…
Wreathed in mist and roses, the Mother greets those who visit the sacred spring of St Non. The little shrine to the Virgin was erected in 1951 when the Passionist Fathers restored and rededicated the spring, as if to leave those who walk the cliff-top path in no doubt of the deity from whom the healing waters flow. Me, I was having grave doubts about such a claim of allegiance.
The legend tells that St Non gave birth to her son, St David, in the field beside the spring. St Non was the daughter of a noble house who had been ravaged and left with child. The healing waters of the spring began to flow when the babe was born, bathed in light, while a thunderstorm of biblical proportions raged around the mother and child, protecting them from harm. I have to wonder what a pregnant noble lady was doing alone, in a storm on a cliff top, when her time came upon her. As pious as she was, eating only bread and water throughout her pregnancy, surely she would have headed for church or convent to seek aid and sanctuary? Especially as, in Welsh, her name means ‘nun’. If that was the whole story, somehow, it didn’t add up.
Many of the holy wells are connected with female saints. The symbolism is fairly obvious… the waters of life are a feminine preserve. They were places of veneration long before Christianity came to these isles and stories are remembered in the folk record of goddess and fae alike at such places. Perhaps St Non was heading for the healing waters as the pains of childbirth came upon her? Perhaps the well was already there and was ‘born anew’ in the Christian faith at that point. It was a thought.
The waters of the spring are reputed to bring healing and were considered miraculous. They have been visited by pilgrims and those with faith in their powers since time out of mind and the clear spring is one of the most sacred places in Wales. A cloutie hanging limp in the mist showed that the well still draws those who seek healing.. as did the small, unobtrusive offerings that were left there. Given the sanctity accorded to the place by the faith of its visitors, I felt bad about questioning the veracity of the story… yet there was no lack of respect for the faith of those who see its truth. Truth may wear many faces… not all of them factual…and all of them equally valid.
We each paid our respects in our own way. I will pay my respects to the outward form of any religion. My own faith sees no distinction between the faces worn by the essence of divinity that lies behind all the Names and stories. I recognise, however, the human need to grasp and sequester all that seems best and most sacred and call it our own. There are many instances throughout history where the sacred places of one stream of belief have been adopted by another. In our own history, the directive from Rome to the evangelising fathers was quite clear in that respect. Just beyond the shrine and the well, lies a small, fenced enclosure and the ruins of Capel Non, the chapel that was built on the spot where the saintly lady gave birth to her son. Legend says that it was built upon the site of St Non’s house… which might explain why she was up on the cliffs alone at that time…except the ruined chapel stands right in the middle of what appears to be a Bronze Age stone circle…
Maybe that was why St Non was wandering the cliff top in a storm… seeking the shelter of a sacred place older than the Christian faith by a thousand years or more. Or maybe the story has absorbed an older tale and the Christian saint has evolved from a Celtic goddess whose ‘house’ was the stone circle. That too is not unknown and the parallels between goddesses and saints, such as Brigid for example, have been well documented and argued. For me, there is a beauty in that… a simple continuity of faith that defies the political machinations of sacerdotal statesmen. Those in power may have sequestered and renamed the stories at the heart of the old ways, they may have laid the veneer of their own religion over the deities of the Old Ones and built in riven stone within the ancient sacred places… yet their essence remains unchanged and draws those who seek, however their belief is framed.
A small step within the ruined chapel marks the spot where the altar once stood. Like the ancient alignment from Pentre Ifan to Bardsey that, according to Robin Heath marks north as a sacred direction, the chapel is unusually oriented north-south, rather than the traditional east-west, with the altar in the north. Little else remains of the chapel built where the patron saint of Wales was born some fifteen hundred years ago. In one corner propped against a wall, is a stone slab, carved with a symbol that has become known as St David’s Cross. The stone, thought to be perhaps twelve hundred years old, was found at the site. It may have been either grave marker or altar stone and bears the symbol of the Cross within a Circle… which seems very appropriate here.
The Cross immediately explained the simplicity of the identical Stations of the Cross in the more modern chapel of Our Lady and St Non… they were replicas of the stone, carved in wood… ‘the living and the dead’ brought into the worship within a holy house…another link with an ancestral faith.
The ruined chapel and holy well were once sought by the feet of many pilgrims. The chapel is one of the oldest Christian sites in Wales and perhaps the most sacred. Here, where the stones of an ancient faith encircle those of the new, there is neither ‘living’ nor ‘dead’, only a peaceful recognition of the endless round of humanity’s quest for understanding.
We had enjoyed two glorious days of sunshine in Pembrokeshire. Drawing back the curtains of a room that had boasted a clear view of the sea the night before, it seemed that the morning would bring us a different view of Wales. Heavy sea-mist clung to every bush and every blade of grass was bent beneath the weight of water. I forced protesting feet back into the confinement of walking shoes. Like it or not, I would need the secure grip they offered on the slippery path. The rain fell doggedly… not heavily, just enough to stoically resist any attempt at intrusion by the sun and ensure that we would be thoroughly drenched. It would make photography difficult, with a constant search for some dry shred of clothing to clear the lens, but there was something entirely fitting about the mist.
The coastal path we would be walking is beautiful in the sunshine. The waters are crystal clear, with every pebble visible through the shifting sparkle of blue and turquoise. In the mist, you walk outside of time in a landscape full of mystery. Islands, barely seen through the veil, seem to hover as if magically suspended and you get a glimpse of how the oldest legends were born… and why Wales is hailed the birthplace of so many of them. Every so often a window would open through the mist, revealing the promise of beauty, just for a moment, before swallowing the tantalising vista. The cliffs became a place of ghosts and forgotten voices that whispered in the rain.
The mist softened the distance between the leading party and the few of us walking at a slower pace, making each cluster of souls an island in the brume. For once, I was reluctant to hurry on and catch up, in spite of the rain… there is something quite unique about the sea-silence that seems to gather at the edges of the heart, waiting to share its secrets.
We were walking what must once have been part of a pilgrim route along the cliff tops. To our right, fields and flowers waved bowed heads in the invisible breeze. Beneath us, to the left, small rocky bays invited exploration on brighter days. The saturated earth glowed with countless shades of vivid green, splashed with the colours of summer. From every cliff, ancient faces seemed to watch the way to the little chapel that was our goal.
When the diminutive shape of St Non’s finally emerged from the mist, I greeted the sight with mixed feelings. It is a place I have long wanted to visit and I was very glad that finally, I was about to do so. It would undoubtedly be good to shelter from the weather for a little while too and simply sit in the quiet of the chapel, resting my unforgiving feet. But there was a part of me that was in no hurry to leave the mists and return to the ‘real’ world; the warmth and friendship in the human voices of my friends would drown the chill song of the western seas that calls to some far memory whose shade haunts my blood.
It is a beautiful walk along the cliffs towards St David’s Head. The land is covered in an incredible variety of wildflowers, from the pink pompoms of thrift to the tall spires of foxgloves. The starry flowers of sedum nestle in every nook and cranny and little spotted orchids drift through the short, sturdy grass. It is a gardener’s paradise, especially on a glorious summer afternoon.
The sea was a changing pallette of blue and turquoise, clear as glass and sparkling in the sunlight. I am a northern lass and the shores of my home county wear grey like a faded memory. Where I now live, the sea is simply too far away, so for me the day was a delight. Even the rocks wear the ochres and green of lichen; colour is everywhere. It does the heart good just to be in such a landscape, as if Nature responds to need with her entire armoury and a refusal to let the grey pall of the workaday world remain. You cannot help but be present in face of such beauty.
The area is rich in wildlife too, both on land and in the sea and sky. Gulls fly above and below as you walk the cliff path, wild Welsh ponies graze on the hillside and there are often seals and porpoises in the bay. I have seen seals here before, but sadly, no amount of looking would reveal them this time.
As if the land, sky and sea were not enough, there is a wealth of history too. It is impossible to say when mankind first came to this rocky headland. It was already known when Ptolemy write his Geography nearly two thousand years ago in Alexandria and, as his book was based upon the even earlier writings of Maucan, it may have been known long before Ptolemy’s time. The Geography calls the place the ‘Promontory of the Eight Perils’ an intriguing name that makes you wonder just what the ancient ones were doing in this landscape.
The area is rich in archaeology. The first really visible site we encountered were the stone foundations of hut circles…and suddenly we had slipped back in time thousands of years. The tip of the promontory is an ancient stronghold known as Warrior’s Dyke, bounded on the landward side by what remains of a ditch and rubble bank and the natural stone outcrop. What is left today might easily be missed, blending into the boulder strewn landscape, but once the stone and earth fortifications were over two hundred feet long and over eighty feet high. The hut circles are part of this ancient settlement, built in a place that had long held importance in the minds and hearts of men.
There are cairns and prehistoric walls, earthworks and tombs…everywhere we looked there was something that needed exploring. It would need much longer than a day to do it justice. It was overwhelming. We sat on the tip of the rocks for a long time, just watching the light on the water and listening to the poetry recited by one of our Companions. We ask that those who join us on such weekends bring a short reading of some kind, to be read…or not…when and if the moment feels right. The time we spent on the uttermost edge of the land, where sky and sea meet stone, was a perfect moment…and ended, as such moments often do, in laughter.
There was still much to see though going back even further in time and, with some reluctance, we turned inand, following the cliff-top path, back towards the slopes of Carn Llidi, watching the changing outline of the hill against the sky. There is a ‘feel’ about such places. It is somehow easy to attune to the land and its people, even those long gone whose lives we understand but little and whose culture and technology raise so many questions. All it takes is an openess to the moment and a stilling of the mind that, in our busy world, is always tense and alert to the demands of our own social and cultural interactions.
We were stepping away from those demands for a little while, just a small group of travellers sharing a path and we were heading for a place that marks a journey that is common to us all…
We gathered by Whitesands beach, just outside St David’s in Pembrokeshire… a small group of people from all walks of life, putting aside the cares and pressures of the daily grind to explore the sacred landscape of Wales. A time out of time. A weekend is too short to see enough of anywhere…and an area such as this, so rich in natural beauty, history and legend deserves all the time you can give. We had only the weekend, but our guide and Companion had carefully planned the days to share as much as she could of a place that is very dear to her heart.
For myself, the time in such a landscape was much needed. It had been a busy several weeks. Ever since the April workshop in Derbyshire it seemed as if I had been on my feet or cursing them, especially after the incident with the spider bites. With an unexpectedly rapid house move thrown in for good measure, I was wound up tight and the healing of stone, sun and sea was a balm that I craved.
Few places could have been better than where we began the weekend. A curve of pale sand nestles between limestone cliffs and is bounded by the bluest sea and a profusion of wildflowers. Carn Llidi rises against the azure sky; its name may mean either the ‘Cairn of Wrath’ or the ‘Cairn of the Gates’. The former may refer to the storms that can batter this headland, but I prefer the idea of the Gates. Walking in its shadow we began a journey through the ancient past.
The first living field of wildflowers that we crossed hides a secret. This place was once the site of a chapel dedicated to St Patrick, as it is told that it was from here at Porth Mawr that the saint took ship for Ireland some fifteen hundred years ago after being granted a vision. The chapel was already in ruins four hundred years ago and only a small mound now marks where it once stood.
Many stories are told of the place… how the patron saint of Wales, St David, studied with St Paulinus at the monastery…now a white farmhouse called Ty Gwyn (which means ‘White House’) that lies just above the beach. St Non, David’s mother, is thought to have lived there too when it was still a religious community and may have been educated by Maucan, who, in his turn, had learned at the feet of St Patrick. Pilgrims gathered here before crossing the bay to the great cathedral of St David’s… and I have to wonder whether the ‘white’ of the names refers to the pale sand…or to some inner ‘whiteness’, the purity of a place that has long been held sacred.
Beneath the flowers is a burial ground. Storms have exposed the remains of the people who lived here centuries ago, some of whom may have known St Patrick himself. Archaeologists have moved to protect and preserve the site and around fifty skeletons were excavated during a recent dig…just a small part of the community that was buried here over several hundred years. The burials were unusual for their time as many people were laid in stone-lined cysts. One held a small, standing stone cross, the first ever found in Britain in a long cyst grave.
More poignant though are the graves of the children; buried amid such beauty, their parents laid them to rest with layers of quartz crystal and shells. Were they simply gifts, given in love to go with them on their soul’s journey? Or was there some deeper mystery that we have forgotten? We may never know. Much is lost beneath the sands…
This is a place of peace and beauty in summer… a harsh and storm-torn land in winter, yet through it all, it survives, ever changing, its beauty reborn with the touch of the sun. It has been here longer than mankind, yet our story is deeply etched on the land. Beneath the waves and visible at the lowest tides is an ancient forest where hunters sought the auroch, deer and bear. A community that spanned the centuries sleeps beneath the flowers, and in the concrete car park, modern history is remembered with a plaque and a propeller, commemorating a Marauder that crashed there, killing its four-man crew at the end of WWII.
This place of peace was home to Halifax bombers, several of which were lost in combat… yet it has also been a place of saints. Even so, the hand of Man, with all his contrasts and conflicts seems but a little thing beside the beauty of Creation, yet perhaps it is because of such small contrasts that we are able to appreciate the greater whole. We see best where there is both light and dark.
It is a rare thing to see our own days through the eyes of others, but, with the Whispers in the West weekend, some of us get to do just that. Both Steve and Stuart have already written about the weekend and seeing the landscape and sites through their eyes, I have been able to relive what was, for me, a beautiful weekend all over again…yet differently, through the unique vision and understanding of my friends. Within the Silent Eye, we share a common vision, yet our perspectives and areas of interest are not always the same and it is in the coming together of these three different approaches that we are able to give something greater than the sum of its parts to the School.
Six a.m. on a Sunday morning; woken by the rain on the window, I have been awake for over an hour. The hotel is a field away from the sea and, for the past two nights, we have seen the lights of the boats dancing on the waves. This morning the sea is unseen, veiled by the mists and rain and the silence of invisibility.
We have still half a day left of the Whispers in the West weekend and it has been a wonderful few days so far, seeing this little corner of Pembrokeshire through the eyes of one of our Companions who loves it dearly.
There will be much to tell and share when I am home and reconnected to the internet next week. For now, though, I try and clear the inner mists of sleep and ready myself for the shared morning and the long journey home.