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 – The chapel in the mists

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The chapel of Our Lady and St Non perches no more than a few yards above the steep cliffs and clear waters of the bay. Rising beyond a  bank dotted with the brilliant spires of foxgloves, it was a welcome sight on a damp morning. It is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time, though the building itself is less that a hundred years old. The tiny chapel, just twenty-five feet long and twelve feet wide, was built in 1934 by Cecil Morgan-Griffiths. He had built a house on the cliff top, close to a far more ancient site that has long been revered as a holy place and, as the nearest Catholic Church was many miles away, he built the little chapel that would become the most westerly in Wales.

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Morgan-Griffiths used stones and fragments of architectural beauty from ruined chapels in order to build his own. The holy water stoup by the open doorway as brought here from the Chapel of the Fathoms. It is all that now remains of a place wonderfully named. The pale slab of stone that forms the altar came from the chapel dedicated to St Patrick that once stood at Whitesands, where we had officially begun our weekend.

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It seems as if the little chapel is home to the ghosts of many ancient places, giving their bones sanctuary within its walls. Perhaps it is this that makes the place seem warm with prayer and peace. The chapel is a living place of worship and pilgrimage…the Sisters of Mercy care for the chapel and Morgan-Griffiths’ old home,  keeping it as a place of spiritual retreat. It has a gentle air; a sense of inclusion that welcomes all who seek shelter or solace within its walls… even the birds.

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We were greeted by the swallows… a nest perched high in the rafters, seemingly overfull with nestlings with their frantic parents swooping in and out in the incessant search for food. That explained why the door stood open in such inclement weather. Even so, I had the feeling it was never completely closed… neither to the birds nor to those travellers who find their footsteps leading to the chapel on the cliff.

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We wandered around the chapel, reading the signs and prayers in neat little frames on the walls and looking at the stained glass that commemorates the local saints. The chapel is dominated by a beautiful but incongruously large statue, a copy of Notre Dame de Victoire from Paris. Her marble sophistication seems out of place in this tiny space made of reclaimed stones and shattered fragments of the past and sits in stark contrast to the simplicity of the Stations of the Cross that line the walls… no ornate scenes here, just small slivers of wood with a circled cross, identical on each of the Stations.We would learn why a little  later, but they seemed to confirm that within this Roman Catholic chapel lay a Celtic heart.

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One by one, without a word, we each sat in silent contemplation. The space invites that inner silence that is, in itself, a prayer. One by one, we each rose when we were ready, taking a last look at the stained glass in their recessed windows. One portrayed St Winifride… whom we knew as Gwenffrewi. The saint and her story has been woven through our travels for a while.

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Above the altar, St Non herself is portrayed in a window by William Morris. Hers is a curious story, combining many elements found both in the saintly hagiographies and the legends of older times. The celibate daughter of a local lord, she was ravaged and found that she was with child. The pious lady lived on nothing but bread and water throughout her pregnancy. When it was realised that the priest could no longer preach in the presence of her unborn child, it became obvious that the child would be a power in the land. The local lord, fearing the future, sought to murder the babe as soon as it was born, but Non escaped and a violent storm protected her. In spite of the wild weather, she gave birth to her son bathed in light, though she left marks in the rocks that she grasped when the birth-pains took her. She named her son Dewi…we know him as St David, the patron saint of Wales.

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Before we left her chapel, one of our Companions who loves the place dearly, led us in a simple and beautiful prayer, capturing with his words the spirit of a universal faith that belongs to no religion…and to all. In these sacred spaces, be they church, chapel or ancient stones, there is a common core of faith that transcends dogma and belief, seeing to the heart of what lies behind our quest for understanding. In such moments the veneer of labelled religion is stripped away and hearts can come together in harmony, each with their own faith, their own story and holy name…and know that they are One.

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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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