Going west – a simple man

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Behind the High Altar of St Davids Cathedral there was once an empty space, open to the winds. In the early 1500s, Bishop Edward Vaughan created a chapel there which, for me, is the loveliest part of the cathedral. The Holy Trinity chapel seems to be a very simple space of hewn stone; such is the sense of harmony there that the intricate carvings of the fan vaulted ceiling barely register as being ornate.

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Instead, the eyes are drawn to the altar and to a niche through which one can just about see through to the High Altar and the shrine of St David.  Both the altar and the niche use carvings far older than their construction…fragments of history that were recognised as such five hundred years ago. In the niche, a sanctuary light burns before the ancient carved crosses that frame the little window. Above the altar, the reredos shows St James, St Andrew, St Peter and St Paul flanking a scene from the Crucifixion, with a Latin text,”Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”.

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There is a sense of being enclosed here in an atmosphere of peace hallowed by centuries of prayer. Bishop Vaughan himself was buried in front of the altar. It seems an odd contrast… the churchman was responsible for many of the restorations and improvements that were added to the church in the 16th century and himself had an illustrious career… yet here he lies in an aura of simplicity.

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Just outside the little chapel is another, very simple, where priests and knights rest in stone. Above the altar a depiction in stained glass of St David himself. The image is stylised and idealised, bearing little resemblance to the dress and accoutrements he would have habitually worn. St David was known as a simple man in life, yet his shrine is decked with gold.

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Dewi Sant he is called by the Welsh and he is the nation’s patron saint. Little is known about him apart from those stories that have been passed down through long memory and the legends that arose about the saint. In the Middle Ages he was believed to be the nephew of King Arthur, but in truth little is known about his family history for certain. The tales say that he was the son of St Non, born at the place where the chapel now marks the site of her house within an ancient circle of stones. The Annales Cambriae say that he died in 601, although others suggest the date of his death to be AD544. He is reputed to have been over a hundred years old when he died… and legend has it that he lived till he was 147.

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Much of what is known of the saint comes from the  Buchedd Dewi (“Life of David”), written by Rhygyfarch around five hundred years after David’s death. Scholars doubt the veracity of many of the stories the book contains, believing that the author sought to use them to aid the ecclesiastical politics of the time. The Celtic version of Christianity had remained at St Davids far longer than most places and it was not until the 8th century that Roman Rule was accepted. At the time of Rhygyfarch’s writing, there was still a battle for equal status with Canterbury and certain details may have been being used to score points.

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St David founded several monastic communities adhering to a strict and ascetic Rule of absolute poverty, where the monks worked hard, ate little and prayed much. He was renowned as a teacher and preacher and as a good man. There are a good many miracles attributed to St David. The best known was when he was preaching to a large crowd at the Synod of Llanddewi Brefi. The crowd could not hear him, but a hill rose up from under his feet and a dove landed on his shoulder… a clear sign that the Holy Spirit was with him. He had raised a widow’s son from the dead on the way to the Synod too. Perhaps my favourite is that the phenomenon of corpse candles is attributed to the strength of his prayers and love for his people. He prayed that they might be given a sign when their end was near so that they could prepare themselves to meet their Maker. In a vision he was told that from that day forward, those who lived in the lands of Dewi Sant would see the flickering lights of tapers to warn them of their approaching demise. The size and colour of the flames would denote who they were for. Corpse candles are spheres of light, commonly reported in Welsh legends, that travel close to the ground, especially upon the corpse roads the night before a death.

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Another legend tells of his travels across the sea and how he sailed back upon a stone… the very same Sapphire Stone that is now  housed in the cathedral. The simple, broken slab of blue stone may have been David’s portable altar and the tale more symbolic than true. A great sapphire altar is also associated with the saint that was his gift to the Abbey at Glastonbury, where his plans to rededicate the church we changed by a vision of Jesus, telling him that the chapel to His Mother had been dedicated already and needed no dedication by human hands. David built and extension to the Abbey instead and gifted the great sapphire altar. Curiously, a great sapphire was mentioned centuries later in the inventory…

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The shrine of St David contained his relics, along with those of the French St Denis and St Justinian. They were removed by one bishop in an attempt to halt his veneration and the shrine later desecrated by the religious politics that damaged so much of our heritage and history. Now the shrine has been restored, with beautifully executed and gilded portraits and is once again a place of pilgrimage. In the niches below the pictures are reliquaries that are said to have contained the saints’ bones. Recent analysis of the relics shows this to be highly unlikely, the bones thought to be those of the saint coming from three different individuals and one of them a woman.

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It doesn’t matter. Those who now visit the shrine are not credulous Medieval peasants with a superstitious belief in the power that resides in a shard of bone. Education allows a better understanding and even the best authenticated relic is now seen as representative of that greater Power that inspires faith. The shrine is still hallowed… by the faith of those who pray there. Whatever we fix our eyes and hearts upon in reverence is no more than a focus… a symbol through which the inexpressible can be wordlessly approached and the intellectually unknowable Known. When St David died it is told that the monastery was filled with angels. His last words to his followers have been softened by time and usage and ‘do ye the little things’ is a well-known phrase in Wales. Legend has become the heart of a people and through such stories we learn and grow. Things do not always have to be real in order to be True.

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Going west – stories great and small

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It is impossible to walk through any ancient place and not wonder about its story. In somewhere like St Davids Cathedral there are many stories, from those of the craftsmen who built the place, to the Story that inspired their work…and the tales of every pilgrim, priest and visitor who have passed through the old Norman doors.

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For the most part, those stories have slipped silently into the forgotten vaults of history, unknown and now unknowable. Who, for instance, will know whose feet passed through the arches on the day we were there? The annals of the cathedral will record the mayor-making that had delayed our entry. They may record the names and stories of the civic dignitaries who were there… but the stories of pilgrims, the faithful and the curious who were also there on that day will leave no more of a mark upon the building’s history than their shadows.

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Yet none who enter fail to add their own story to the great stream of history. Even on the physical level, each person who breathes alters the air and how it preserves or damages the building over time, each footstep adds to the wearing of the stone, each hand that touches leaves a trace behind that adds to the maturing patina of the building. Every story matters.

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The tomb of a knight in armour shows the passing caress of centuries, the pale stone irrevocably changed and polished by the touch of hands and the irreverent carving of graffiti. Even those whose hands have traced the carvings on his breastplate will have forgotten their touch… yet the trace of their passage remains.

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Few leave a lasting story here that can be as readily seen and understood as the great memorials, like the elaborate  tomb of the Countess of Maidstone who died in 1932. Her name, acts and face are remembered in the cold marble of the chapel of Edward the Confessor that she restored, some three hundred years after its roof was stripped of its lead by marauding troops.

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Some stories belong to the building alone and the nameless, faceless craftsmen who have passed quietly into the pale pages of history, leaving behind stories in stone and wood that seem to invite our questions. Some are symbolic images whose message we can trace or deduce… others seem to be an expression of inner joy and secret jokes that invite us to share their laughter. Nowhere is this more easily seen that in the misericords… the mercy seats for the ecclesiastical rumps to support them through the long hours of standing and service.


Folk-tale and symbol, allegory and observation…and quite possibly the odd reference to a disliked cleric… all wait in the shadows beneath the wooden perches of the Quire, though after five hundred years, the object of the joke and its carver are both forgotten. It is a reminder of our impermanence and the futility of seeking to impose our image on memory.

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Fearing oblivion or through a desire to be remembered when they are gone, many seek to ‘make their mark’ upon the pages of history, carving from life the story by which they wish to be known. Yet such stories, by their very nature, are not remembered by their creator, but only through the perceptions of those in whose memory they survive. Time and forgetfulness will eventually erase us all from the great story of humanity… yet we each of us contribute the essence of the story to its pages.

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Few of us will change the world in ways that history will notice, though all of us change the world with every thought and deed, every day. How, or even if, we are remembered, will be out of our hands. Why should we even wish to be remembered by those we did not know and love unless we too fear the oblivion of the unknown?

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Like the artists and craftsmen whose names and stories are now lost to us, it is only what we do with each day that counts. The empire of the financial genius or property magnate will do him no good as he breathes his last breath, though his name may be remembered for years to come. Yet the teachers whose names we have forgotten, the parents whose children were raised in love and tolerance, the nameless smile that lights a day or the quiet act of generosity… these will never make the history books, but they change lives every day, shaping both present and future and annealing the past.

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Going west – the painted church

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It is difficult for our modern eyes to imagine the colour that would once have been present within our oldest churches. The carved and decorated facades, often covered with statuary, would have been brightly painted. Walls that we are used to seeing in mellow stone and whitewash, touched by the ochre ghosts of medieval paintings, would once have gleamed in the flickering candlelight as the frescos borrowed life from the flames and processed through the shadowed aisles.

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It is in the great cathedrals that we can still get a glimpse of the light and colour that provided such a contrast to the homespun world when dyes were expensive luxuries reserved only for the wealthy. At St Davids, a high, painted lantern still crowns the arches of the Crossing, drawing the eye ever upwards to the heavens.

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Delicate traceries of contrasting stone mark the vaulted ceilings of the chapels, punctuated by highly coloured shields and bosses displaying designs both armorial and symbolic. In the 13th century Lady Chapel at the Easternmost end of the cathedral, I saw a symbol I recognised, the three hares who share their ears.Each hare has two ears…yet only three ears are depicted.

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In Christian terms, it symbolises the Trinity, though it has older and other meanings that include and transcend the artificial barriers that we erect between our various cultures and religions. It is a symbol I frequently wear, reminding me of a much-loved friend whose physical presence is far across the ocean yet who is never far from my heart. Other bosses in the little chapel show the Dragon, the symbol of Wales as well as demonic creatures apparently devouring the unholy or perhaps just those who are tempted.

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Today our churches are comparatively pallid affairs with colour used sparingly, mainly in stained glass and textiles. There is still a sense of awe inspired by the scale and beauty with which you are greeted when you walk through their doors. In the older places though, with their vast proportions, lofty, lighted vaults and rich decoration, you can see how they must have appeared to those who visited them.

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To the lords and princes, the vast, ornate space would have spoken of power, both temporal and divine. From the ordinary folk, the overwhelming presence of that power must have evoked automatic obedience. To the pious, the beauty and craftsmanship would have seemed a fitting externalisation of faith made manifest in an attempt to echo the glory their inner hearts could see, while to some it must have seemed as if they were afforded a glimpse of a fragment of Heaven itself.

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There is much colour remaining at St Davids, from the painted ceilings to the stonework, from the fragmentary frescos to the gilded reredos behind the High Altar and the stained glass that punctuates the clear.

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Yet for me, it is the smaller details that may well pass unnoticed that, in bypassing the sense of majesty, truly capture something of the long history of the people who have passed through the portals of this ancient church. It is the traces of polished colour on the memorial brasses, like those on the tomb of Edmund Tudor, that speak of the touch of reverent hands or overzealous cleaning…

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It is the intricate rendering of Celtic designs whose symbolic meanings are probably far more potent than we now know but which speak to the inner mind in a language of geometry that seems to bypass logic and reach straight for the wordless understanding of the heart…

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Undoubtedly for me, it was the painted birds I was shown that bring the majesty down to human proportions. Such a simple painting, two magpies and an owl, hidden behind the arch of the carved stone screen of the pulpitum. Few would know it was there… few may notice it today, yet the birds seemed to bring something of the natural world into the unnatural magnificence of the cathedral.

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They reminded me instantly of another church… this one, just a tiny, single cell building that stands on a site held sacred since prehistory. It is the place where many of our adventures began and its peace and simplicity hold a very special corner of my heart. On the walls there too, an owl and a flock of birds were painted half a millennium ago in the simple ochres of the time. There, St Francis stretches out his hand to them, speaking to his fellow creatures with love… and, within the vast interior of the cathedral, it is the little painted birds that remind me that Love is the central tenet of the Christian religion, so often lost beneath the politics and power-play of man’s ambition.

St Francis and the birds, All Saints, Little Kimble.
St Cecilia, St Francis and the birds, All Saints, Little Kimble.

Going west – a wounded church

It has been a week or more since the last post about our recent workshop in Wales… illness got in the way of finishing the series, but it would be a shame not to share the interior of the Cathedral at St Davids…

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I had barely raised the camera to start photographing the interior of the great cathedral at St Davids before a gentleman approached and told me that I could not… or, at least, not without paying for a permit. Now, I know that these ancient churches cost a good deal to keep standing and pay for their conservation, but I have a problem with those that demand exorbitant entry fees before forcing a ‘no photography’ rule on unsuspecting visitors. Especially when they quote ‘copyright’ as the reason; I fail to see how something the best part of a thousand years old can still enforce copyright law.

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St Davids, however, is more than reasonable… no entry fee is charged, donations are at the discretion (and therefore within the means of) visitors and the photography permit costs next to nothing. I paid without a qualm and wandered around with my official ‘photographer’ badge proudly displayed on my chest… until someone kindly pointed out that I was wearing it upside down.

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Somehow, though, that seemed to fit. Little at St Davids seems to be quite ‘right’..at least not if you are looking for straight lines and accurate angles; the cathedral building bears the scars of a long and troubled life. Building began around 1181 and the Norman arches of the nave are typical of that period… each differently decorated with carvings. The ceiling would normally be vaulted stone, but between the collapse of the tower in 1220 and the damage caused by an earthquake damage in 1247/48, the 15thC wooden ceiling is kinder.

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Everywhere the scars of an uneasy past blend with the natural evolution of a great church over the centuries. The ghosts of older arches still mark the ancient walls above their more recent counterparts.

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Window embrasures seem to smile wryly at their displacement writing in stone and in warped and bent wood the story of a long and interesting life. Yet the church wears her age well, smiling serenely through her wrinkles, knowing they have been written upon her face by both sorrow and joy, tragedy and love.

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Many have passed through her embrace… kings and princes, beggars and saints. Some have remained, to sleep within her protection, others have left their shadow upon her walls. On one pillar in the south aisle, like a photographic negative, the spectral shade of a Prince still stands guard.

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Along the aisles, the great and good have their tombs. Many of them have lost their faces… most have lost their names, bearing only the carved initials and signatures of centuries-old graffiti, carved as if in some desperate attempt to leave a mark upon history by lacklustre lives. In some things, humanity changes little.

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Is it, I wonder, the only way some feel they are able to be part of the stream of time? It is the lettered, not the illiterate, who carve their names thus in such a place. Is it with advancement and education that dissatisfaction with one’s lot may begin to rear its head for those already insecure in their own skins?

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It seems a strange thing to me that it is those with enough of an education to be able to carve their names who choose to deface something long held sacred. Or is it perhaps some attempt to associate themselves forever with the sanctity of a holy place of pilgrimage? To some things, there will never be a single answer.

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Many feet have traversed these aisles over the centuries. In 1123, Pope Calixtus II officially recognised St Davids as a place of pilgrimage, and, given the importance of the saint’s shrine, decreed that two pilgrimages to St Davids was equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem.

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Many rest here, adorned with the names of those who came to stand by their graves, yet whose own names have a place at the heart of Welsh history. The great and the good of history, about whom stories are still woven and told. Some of them wrote thir name into the history books… some of them wrote the histories. People like Rhys ap Gruffydd, one of the most important princes in the history of the country, of whom Geraldus Cambriensis wrote that he was “a man of excellent wit and quick in repartee.”

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And Gerald himself, a scholar and one of the ecclesiastics who were excused from the Crusades to work on the building of the cathedral. Walking through the quiet aisles of this cathedral, you walk with ghosts and shadows of a past unforgotten yet whose storries have passed into myth and legend. The sense of history is alive here and whispers in wood and stone of the continuity of life. The same qualities that animate our own hearts and minds once carried these people through their days… from strength to ambition, from curiosity to simple faith. We are not so different today from how we once were. The scarred walls, for all their magnificence, serve to remind us of what we have in common with our ancestors… and each other… at a very human level. Most of us will pass faceless into history. What, if anything, remains of our individual stories will pass from fact into a telling more akin to fiction than to truth as we are remembered through lives and perceptions other than our own.  The only lasting memorial we can leave is how we walk the earth and how we touch the lives of others. In that, every day, we change the world.

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Going west – An uneasy peace

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Where do you begin when you have to write about a cathedral? Each chapel, every corner, every nook and cranny is replete with art and history. The sensory input is so much that all you can do is walk and attempt to catch the aura of the place and snippets of information as you marvel at how much of the past is preserved in wood, stone and colour. For me, outside is a good place to start. Apart from places like Lincoln where the outside is overwhelming as what lies within the walls. It gives a chance to get a feel for the place and seems to put what you will find into context.

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Not that we had a lot of choice… the mayor-making was taking its time and, until they were finished, we were left with the refectory and the exterior to play with. The refectory is a lovely space, with high, clear glass windows overlooking the cloisters. It now holds a cafe and an art exhibition was in progress while we were there, but instead of mangling the ancient architecture, a floating, self-contained mezzanine has been installed that barely touches the old walls. It does spoil the proportions of the lofty space… but it is a practical and not unattractive compromise that allows modern usage of an otherwise impractical height. It also serves tea and, while several of the party lingered over that welcome beverage, I wandered off to look at the walls.

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Not just the cathedral walls, but the remnants of the old town walls built by the Norman lords not long after the Conquest. The walled enclosure dates back to at least the 12th century, and the contours of the earthworks still remain visible. The tower that now houses the bells was added a century later and was once the consistory court of the bishops and also houses the bishops’ dungeon. The gatehouse and taller south tower came a hundred years after that.

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The first religious community here was founded by St David himself. The saintly bishop died in 589, which makes this one of the oldest known religious sites of Christianity in Britain. Between 645 and 1097 the monks faced the incursions of raiders, seeing their brothers and bishops killed, one after the other. A beautifully carved stone that marries the older, Celtic art with the newer, Roman iconography is now housed in the gate-tower, that once marked the grave of the sons Bishop Abraham, Hedd and Isaac, who were killed by the Vikings in 1080.

Image source: castlewales.com

You can see the antiquity of the place… but only at close quarters. The lower courses of the walls show their earliest origins in places. It has seen much destruction during the past thousand years. The cathedral building itself was begun in 1181. In 1220, the new tower collapsed and less than thirty years later, an earthquake caused further damage. Relics of St David and St Justinian were inhumed in jewelled shrines… until in 1538 Bishop Barlow, seeing their veneration as superstition, had the relics removed and the shrines stripped of their riches. For the next few hundred years, successive bishops added chapels, improvements and extensions, making the building reflect its importance at the heart of the religious and political life of the area…until the forces of Oliver Cromwell devastated the building during the years of the Commonwealth of England.

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It was not until 1783 that John Nash, best known in his later role as architect to the Prince Regent, was commissioned to restore and rebuild the cathedral. He re-used medieval traceries for his great west front and the cathedral rose again. Even this was not the end of its troubles. Nash’s work was not up to standard and began to deteriorate rapidly. It was to be George Gilbert Scott who would finally restore the building in the 19th century; born in a vicarage not far from my home and whose work we have seen at so many places we have visited.

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The great west front now looks back to an older age, wearing the same style as the Norman archways of the north and south doors. It is a curious thing to see the shapes and symbols copied. From one perspective, their uneroded state gives a glimpse of what the older stonework  may have looked like…yet it is as if a child has tried to copy one of the Old Masters.  The form is there… but no more than that. the soul is missing, the understanding of the symbolism not present….or, if present, it is an intellectual comprehension rather than  the knowing of the heart. The carvings do not speak, they merely show.


After the wonders of the carved doorway and corbels of Kilpeck just a few days before, the contrast is stark. Beautifully executed by their craftsmen, they lack heart. They tell no stories, inspire no affirmation. There is no life, no joy and no humour in the reproduction of these symbols., just the posturing of form that mimics a fluid expression of faith.

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The 12th century south door and its northerly counterpart are completely different from the west front. In spite of centuries of weathering, they are alive with movement, detail and expression. The contrast between the old and the new makes me wonder about how we have chosen to live, pursuing the outward forms of integration and conformity, while leaving little place for joy. In the organised forms of religion, we now see mostly the rigidity of ritual. Through the years that we have been wandering ancient sites and visiting the holy places of our forefathers, we have seen how the representations of an inclusive reverence for nature and the life of both body and soul, have given way gradually to a culture of sin and the need for repentance, illustrated by many of the medieval wall paintings depicting hell and damnation in no uncertain terms and with graphic detail for the sinner to contemplate.

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I do not subscribe to the doctrine of eternal condemnation for sin. Of the saints whose stories we know form their own writings, few have entered into beatitude without struggling with their very human demons. We do not see the whole story of humanity, so cannot see how our little fragment of the tale fits into the whole, taking its unique place in the completion of a greater picture than we can perceive. We do not always see the good that may come from the seemingly bad, even if it serves only as a contrast by which we can appreciate the difference between light and shade, rigidity and movement. We make mistakes, take a wrong path, commit harm and it is from having made such choices that we can choose to learn and grow. We do repent. Not in the mundane sense of the word, where we admit guilt and say we are sorry, but in the true sense of turning ourselves around with a change of heart and mind. A change of consciousness. Like the cathedral, we live an uneasy peace, ever poised on the edge of change, but like the cathedral, the light shines within, opening the doors to a promise of beauty.

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Going west – the talking stone

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While I was researching the cathedral at St Davids, I came across a couple of legends that caught my fancy. Both of them concern Llechllafar, the talking stone. The name just by itself was intriguing… where did the emphasis lie? Was it a stone that spoke, or a stone where people could speak? I soon found out and it tied in with the legends of the old corpse roads that Stuart and I had come across when working on our books.

When villages began to get their own churches, quite often  it would only be the mother church of the area that had burial rights. People were obliged to carry their dead, often long distances, to bury their loved ones. There were many legends associated with these old highways that could scale hills and ford rivers for mile upon mile, following a straight line, very like the leys, that might take them even through homes…the spirits of the dead always took a straight course, and a convoluted path would confound or confuse them.

There was a corpse road at St Davids… and it was crossed by Llechllafar.

The talking stone was a huge white  slab of marble, ten feet long, six feet wide and a foot thick. It lay across the little river Alun that separates the cathedral from the palace… making me wonder which side was that of the living and which that of the dead, especially as, beyond the ruins of the bishops palace, there is only the sea and the islands that float in the mist…

Llechllafar, wrote Giraldus Cambrensis around 800 years ago, as part of the corpse road was so old even then that it was worn smooth with age and the passing of many feet. As one body was carried across it for burial, the stone spoke. So far I have found no record of its words. The effort of making itself heard was so great that the stone split asunder and, from that day, none would cross that way through fear.

There is another legend that does record the words…  though here, it was Merlin, not the stone, who spoke them. Merlin foretold that an English king would attempt to cross the bridge.  This king would have conquered Ireland and would also have been injured by a man with a red hand. Crossing Llechllafar the king would die.

King Henry II, having just returned from Ireland, made a pilgrimage to St Davids. He heard of Merlin’s prophecy yet chose to cross the water by Llechllafar. As he reached the other side alive, he laughed at the prophecy, calling Merlin a  false seer. A local man shouted out that Merlin’s words held true… Henry had not conquered Ireland, so he was not the king of the prophecy.

Henry never did defeat the whole of Ireland…

It wasn’t until the 16th century, that a new bridge was built and the stone taken away.  Llechllafar is now lost, along with any words it may have whispered as to why it was so important. In a land where the hills hold the quarry from which the bluestones of Stonehenge were hewn, and where ancient stones now stand silent in the landscape, you have to wonder about its origins…


Going west – the accidental tourist

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Frankly, I thought it appallingly bad planning. Could the town not have chosen a different day to ceremonially install their new mayor? It isn’t as if we hadn’t advertised our itinerary for the weekend, culminating with a visit to the Cathedral at St Davids and lunch in the refectory. In that order. But no… the Cathedral was otherwise occupied and would be for some time to come. It was still occupied by the time we had finished warming up with pots of tea… and still too busy after I had wandered round the outside of the church with the camera, trying to get a few good shots in spite of the rain that was now beating a steady tattoo on the lens. We were at a loose end.

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“Another twenty minutes or so,” said the gentleman manning the door. Some chose to stay in the warmth of the refectory. Others disappeared, planning to gather again shortly. I wandered off over the little stream to be a tourist. Tourism is not the point of these weekends and although we have a plan of where we will go and what we want to see, we have learned to be flexible in our approach, shunning rigorous timetables in favour of time to savour the sites we visit. Sometimes, though, there is nothing wrong with a little tourism. The Cathedral is not the only thing worth visiting in St Davids and, with little time at our disposal, the Bishop’s Palace is a good place to while away a few moments. To be fair, it deserves a lot more than I had to give it, being part of one of the oldest and certainly most important Christian sites in Wales.

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We’d had our first sight of the ruined palace as we approached the cathedral from St Non’s, watching the remarkable architectural details reveal themselves through the mist and rain. Fifteen hundred years ago, a monastery grew up here. It was not then the peaceful spot we know today and the monks who lived there saw their home sacked by Norse raiders, then quietly rebuilt it, at least ten times over the course of the next four hundred years. It was only after the Norman invasion of 1066 that the monks began to know peace. The strong presence of the Norman barons imposed fortifications on the growing town, protecting the monastery and the relics it housed.

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St Davids was already recognised as an important spiritual centre. William the Conqueror himself came to pay his respects to the relics of St David in 1081. Later, in 1284, King Edward I would also make the pilgrimage. The remains of the current palace reflect that later date; the building was begun around that time, and work continued until the middle of the following century. The Reformation saw the demise of the palace; its fall into ruin much hastened by Bishop William Barlow, who sold the lead from the roof in 1536 to pay the dowries of his five daughters… the equivalent of twelve years income from the episcopal see!

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It is always curious to begin to reconstruct in imagination a site that is now but a shadow of its former self. It matters little whether it is a stone circle, a tomb or a palace… it is the small, almost insignificant things that give the real clues, not to how a place looked… but to how it was. Here, the warm tones of the volcanic rock and local stone have been embellished by a chequerboard pattern. Great windows that perhaps once have held stained glass pierce the walls and arcades decorate every face of the palace, inside and out. Wide spaces, high ceilings, towers and turrets… this is a visible show of wealth and power, more temporal than divine. The little monastery that faithfully guarded its treasured relics against the invaders was obliterated by its own

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The ruined palace is now crumbling, its wealth generated by tourists, its fabric held tenuously together by those who seek to maintain the presence of a building that has itself become a relic. Its empty shell holds more than memory, it holds a lesson pertinent to why we had gathered for the weekend. We too start small, growing with the simplicity of a child that sees the world unclouded by the complexities of adulthood. As we grow, the malleable clay of our personality is shaped by choice, reaction and experience and the ego builds walls behind which it can hide from invaders. But the protective walls are stark and feel like a prison, so we add embellishments in an attempt to display an illusion of personal power… and, if left untended, those too will eventually crumble and decay becoming both a danger and a liability that can cost us dearly. Like the palace, what began in simplicity, grows beyond our ability to sustain it and beyond its true purpose.

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The first monastery here was a simple place, designed as a vessel to hold something sacred. Overlaid with the trappings of power and ambition, that purpose was lost. The clay of our being is ours to shape. It too holds something sacred… whether you believe in the soul or simply believe in the indefinable spark of animating life. We owe it to ourselves to make sure the vessel that we build is fit for its purpose. It is not in the walls that we build, but in the space within, where we live and have our being. It is not the vessel, but the space within that holds  the wine.

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Going west – where ancient sites collide

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Going west – a ‘misty, moisty morning’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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