Strata Florida

Strata Florida MapThe isolation of Mid-Wales today can sometimes be misleading, and shouldn’t be used to judge the past. The villages may seem to be empty and a long way from each other, but when they were established the countryside population would have been very different from today. Without the modern machinery we take for granted today, farming the land would have required a high workforce. Scattered throughout the high seemingly empty landscape of Wales are a number of Abbeys. Now just skeletons in the landscape, but once rich in both financial and spiritual terms, and in control of huge expanses of land. Strata Florida Abbey was no exception, and is perhaps considered as the archetypical Welsh Abbey. The opportunity to visit was too good to miss on our visit to the Tregaron Races.

Strata Florida  170826

It is thought, but not certain, that the Abbey was founded in 1164 by Robert fitz Stephen, constable of Cardigan Castle, as a daughter house of Whitland. It was the Cistercians of both Whitland and Strata Florida that tried to take control of Talley Abbey to the south. Even at this early time the family history of the Normans in Wales were complicated. Robert was part Norman, but his mother was Nest, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr [1]. However, Strata Florida was not to remain long in Robert’s patronage, in the following year Rhys ap Gruffudd, lord of Deheubarth, overran Ceredigion and took it from the Normans. Lord Rhys was an able politician and soldier, consolidating his influence and power over Dehuebarth in the following years. So much so that he became an ally of the English Kings, and was allowed to rule without too much interference or threat. In 1184, Rhys extended the abbey’s endowment so that the core estate came to comprise some 80,000 acres. A huge area which proved to be the foundation for riches based upon sheep farming. Many of Lord Rhys’ dynasty were buried here, though Rhys himself was interred at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff.

Strata Florida  170826

Under the patronage of Deheubarth Strata Florida’s influence as a religious and political centre increased. It was in Strata Florida that one of the most important primary sources of Welsh history was written, the Brut y Tywysogyon.  This close connection with Welsh politics led to suspicions on the part of the English that Strata Florida was not to be trusted. In 1212 King John ordered the destruction of the abbey, which he claimed ‘harbours our enemies’ – fortunately, his orders seem not to have been carried out but it seems that the bribe the Abbey had to pay to escape destruction was large [1]. The political connections of the monks spread further than the rulers of south Wales. In 1238 the abbey was the venue for a particularly significant meeting called by the ruler of Gwynedd, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. It was here that he made the other Welsh leaders acknowledge his son Dafydd as his rightful successor.

Strata Florida  170826

But the relative prosperity didn’t last. Despite it’s isolation, Strata Florida couldn’t escape the continuing wars between the Welsh and the English [1]. In 1294 the Abbey was destroyed by English troops during a Welsh revolt, although Edward I denied that he had ordered this. But intrigue and politics can also be internal, and we forget the money that can be gained from being in charge of a rich Abbey. Around 1385, John ap Rhys, abbot of the daughter house of Aberconwy (Maenan) wanted control of Strata Florida and entered the abbey with armed men and seized the common seal of the abbey, and other property. During the war with Owain Glyndwr the English seized the Abbey and garrisoned it against the Welsh. It was eventually returned to the Cistercian Order. But even then, things weren’t squeaky clean. A monk was accused of counterfeiting coin in 1534. The decline in fortune continued and by 1535 the Abbey was valued £118 7s 3d – well below the £200 mark needed for a religious house to remain open. In February 1539 it was suppressed by Henry VIII.

Strata Florida  170826

The skeleton of the Abbey now provides an echo only of past glories. But in an area of beauty as it bounds under the rising hill sides behind. The relatively modern church next door was built around 1700. Mind you it’s only in the UK you can claim a church that is 400 years old to be modern! The church yard seems to be too large for such a sparsely populated area, but this used to be a lead mining area, though there is precious little evidence to be seen in the countryside. It is said that Dafydd ap Gwilym (1315-50) spent some time at Strata Florida, and is buried under the yew tree in the church yard. Dafydd was chiefly a love poet and some 150 of his poems survive.

Strata Florida  170826

Lastly, what about the name Strata Florida? Doesn’t sound very Welsh does it? It is in fact is a Latinisation of the Welsh Ystrad Fflur; “Valley of Flowers”. The Welsh word ystrad is synonymous with “strath” and “dale”, while fflur (“flower”) is also the name of the nearby river. So there you have it. I think I prefer Ystrad Fflur.

Talley Abbey – Bankruptcy and Battles

Hidden away in the Cothi Valley are the ruins of an abbey, but this one has a slightly Talley Mapdifferent history to any of the other monasteries in Wales. Talley Abbey was founded by the White Canons, the Premonstratensians. I have to admit that I’ve never heard of this order before, but I’ll try not to feel inadequate though, but this was the only site on Wales that this order occupied, though there were a number of monasteries in England. The Premonstratensians were influenced by the Cistercian order and even adopted their white habit. But they follow the activities of the Augustinians in that they are not monks but Canons Regular, and their work often involves preaching and the exercising of pastoral ministry, frequently serving in parishes close to their abbeys or priories (1).

Talley Abbey 170826
The abbey was originally founded by founded by Rhys ap Gruffydd in or about 1185, and he in turn may have been influenced by Ranulf de Glanvil (2) in his political desire to ‘keep on the good side’ of the English. Something he was good at. Even though the Abbey was sited in a rural and isolated spot, not all peace in the vale and Talley Abbey had a turbulent history. Early in its history the canons had to defend themselves against the ambitions of the nearby Cistercian abbeys of Strata Florida and Whitland. Sometime between 1193 and 1202, Peter the Abbot of Whitland sought to take over the abbey by appropriating its estates and tempting the canons away from Talley (2). Whitland almost succeeded, but not quite and after an expensive battle the White Canons returned to Talley. But they never really recovered financially. Despite continued endowments from the Princes of Deheubarth after Lord Rhys’ death, it seems that the close association between the Abbey, it’s Welsh canons and the Princes may not have been in it’s best interests. Especially after Edward I’s successful campaign in subduing Wales in the 1370’s. Money always seemed to be short, and there is a hint that this was partly due to misappropriation of funds by the canons, but the original ambitious plans to build a large church had to scaled down. On at least 3 occasions during it’s lifetime the Abbey was taken in Royal Custody due to debts (2,3). But they couldn’t have all been bad, Iorwerth, abbot of Talley, was elevated to the see of St David’s in 1215 and continued in office until his death in 1229. He was buried in St David’s Cathedral where his tomb effigy can still be seen. Or maybe he was a more successful political worker than the others.
Talley Abbey 170826
During Owain Glyndwr’s war of independence, or rebellion depending upon which side you were, the Abbey’s close association with the Welsh cause didn’t do it any good. Around 1410 the war trundled into the quiet valley and the Abbey was ‘despoiled, burned and nearly destroyed’ by the English. Almost 10 years after the war ended, one of the canons Mathew ap Llewelyn Du was still being sought for treason against the crown (2,3). Despite the suppressive English rule, rebellion was seen at all levels of the community.

Talley Abbey 170826

Financial solvency continued to be a challenge. In 1536 the Valor Ecclesiasticus  estimated Abbey to have an income of only £135 (3). This put it firmly in the minor league and 1 year later in 1536 the Abbey was suppressed and duly dissolved as part of Henry VIII’s argument with the Catholic Church. The valley is remote today, and off the main roads, but that does not detract from the beauty of the site. There is not much left today, and after the dissolution the locals mined the abbey to build their houses.Next to the Abbey is a small church, dedicated to St. Michael. This was rebuilt in 1773, having fallen into decay, principally using stones from the ruins of the ancient abbey. It is unusual for Welsh Churches, and is strongly of a Grecian style (4).

Talley Abbey 170826

Today it stands out proudly with its whitewashed walls, and ordered graveyard on the shores of two small lakes. The Welsh name for Talley is Talyllychau, meaning ‘head of the lakes’. In between the lakes is a narrow bar, and the English built a Motte and Bailey Castle onlåy. Now the old castle and the lakes form a nature reserve.

References

  1. Premonstratensians. Wikipaedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premonstratensians. (accessed 29-Aug-2017).
  2. Rees, S. (1992) A Guide to Ancient and Historic Dyfed. HMSO:London.
  3. Burton, J. (2015) Abbeys and Priories of Medieval Wales. University of Wales Press. Kindle Edition.
  4. Talley. Genuki.  http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/wal/CMN/Talley. (accessed 29-Aug-2017)

 

St Asaph Cathedral – Welsh 100 no 49

On the banks of the River Elwy is a small city. It has a population of 3,355 souls. Now how on earth can such a small place be called a city. Surely this is nothing more than a village? Well St Asaph, Llanelwy, is a city, and an old one at that. But Wales seems to have a tendency towards small cities. Llanelwy, the Welshname for St Asaph, means the sacred religious enclosure on the banks of the River Elwy. 


Legend and tradition are confusingly mixed regarding the origination of the settlement and there is no archaeological evidence or written record before the twelfth century. The legend of the founding of the church and monastery between the year c.560 and c.573 is to be found in ‘The life of St Kentigern’ written by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness Abbey c.1180. St Kentigern was the bishop of Strathclyde but he was driven into exile and founded a monastery at Llanelwy. Nearly a thousand monks (it is said) gathered round this charismatic figure, also known by his childhood nickname ‘Mungo’ (‘most dear’) as patron saint of Glasgow. When he returned there, he consigned his Welsh monastery to his favourite pupil, a local man named Asaph St Asaph replaced him as abbot-bishop until he died in 596.

The Cathedral choir stalls

The Cathedral is small and it is only 182 feet long, smaller for example than the church of Valle Crucis. It could be argued that geographically this was not the best place to build a major place of religion because St Asaph has suffered from its proximity to the main invasion route into North Wales. During the turbulent period after 1066 when the Normans repeatedly invaded Wales trying to gain control the town was hit time and again. The present building was begun in about 1239, but was destroyed by Henry II troops in 1245. It was attacked and burnt by Edward I’s English soldiers in 1282; substantially rebuilt between 1284 and 1381. Then in 1402 it was the Welsh who burnt it down, during by Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion. Two hundred and fifty years later, during the Civil War period the building was used to house farm animals – pigs, cattle and horses. Although repaired in the late 15th century what we see today is essentially only the shell from this period because the building was remodelled by the Victorian architect Gilbert Scott in 1867 -75. 

Translators Monmument on the Cathedral Green

A handsome memorial stands in the Cathedral grounds dedicated to those instrumental in translating the Bible into Welsh during the 16th century. Today all Welsh schoolchildren will know about William Morgan (later to become Bishop of St. Asaph from 1601 to 1604) who took a crucial part in ensuring the survival of the written Welsh language. In 1563 an Act of Parliament was passed allowing the translation of the Bible and the Book of Prayer into Welsh “because the English tongue is not understood of the most and greatest number of all her majesty’s most living and obedient subject inhabiting Wales”. This shows that it was the vitality of the Welsh language, not its weakness which called for a Welsh Bible. The New Testament and Book of Common Prayer had been translated and published by Bishop Richard Davies and Williams Salesbury had translated and published the New Testament and Book of Common Prayer. However, by 1578, Davies and Salesbury had fallen out over their work and William Morgan, by now Rector of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in the Tanat Valley, was encouraged to undertake the work by the Bishops of St. Asaph and Bangor. In 1587 he went to London to supervise the printing of the first Welsh Bible. This consisted of his own translation of the Old Testament and a revised version of Salesbury’s New Testament. The cost of publishing was paid for by Archbishop Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

A sneaky photo of Bishop Morgans Bible

St Asaph was the birth place of two brothers Felix and George Powell who wrote the words and tune of the popular First World War song Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-bag. After finishing school the brothers formed a band with their wives and others and toured the music halls. In 1915 the brothers entered a music publisher’s song competition. Their song, Pack Up Your Troubles, won in the category for marching songs and rapidly became a morale-booster sung by troops. The band broke up when Felix formed a new group to tour trenches on the Western Front. George, a pacifist, declined to go. The brothers re-united as performers between the wars in Sussex, where Felix joined the Home Guard in the Second World War. He deliberately shot himself in 1942 and soon died in hospital in Brighton. 

The house where the Powell Brothers were born, situated directly opposite tjhe Cathedral,

Down by the river is an intriguing metal sculpture dedicated to Henry Stanley of Dr Livingstone fame. Stanley was born as John Rowlands to unmarried parents in Denbigh in 1841 and was raised at the Union Workhouse in St Asaph. The workhouse building, by Upper Denbigh Road, still stands. It was the HM Stanley Hospital for many decades. John Rowlands travelled to the USA in 1859, where a merchant called Henry Stanley helped him find his feet. Rowlands took has friend’s name, and later served – on both sides – in the American Civil War. He had been working as the New York Herald’s special correspondent for two years when, in 1869, the editor dispatched him to Africa to interview the Scottish missionary David Livingstone, who had not communicated with the outside world for two years. In November 1871 Stanley met him near Lake Tanganyika. On finding him, looking pale and “wearied”, Stanley claimed simply to have lifted his hat and uttered the words: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”. His next adventure by today’s standards was perhaps not the most ethical. He continued to explore the continent and hatched a plan to exploit the Congo’s natural resources. He enlisted Belgium’s support and began constructing roads, using forced labour. He was said at the time to shoot African people “as if they were monkeys”. 

The Stanley Monument – adorned with woolen scarves after having been knitting bombed.

It’s a great little town with more going on than meets the eye on first look. I’ve driven past it so many times over the years, but never visited. However, like many small towns the road now bypassed it and business seems to be suffering somewhat. All the banks are closed and in various states of disrepair. But it is still worth a visit.

St Winifred’s Well: Welsh 100- No 45

A number of the visits we undertook during our holiday seemed to have developed an ecclesiastical theme. But this may not be a surprise when you remember that so many of the towns, villages and hamlets in Wales start with Llan. That said how about this for a miraculous tale and how the church has turned a mystery into a money making enterprise that continues today. Unlike many of the wells that we’ve visited or will visit in the future in Wales this is very much an organised enterprise. You can only access and exit the well through a gift shop, very reminiscent of so many Catholic shrines abroad.

The main well where the water enters the shrine.

First let’s go to the legend, and I love a story, some of which may be based on truth especially the most basic instincts involved, but the rest can only be an allegory for rebirth. The daughter of a local rich Nobel man, Gwenffrwd (St Winifred) had chosen to devote her life to the service of God. Caradoc, the son of a local chief, had long been attracted to her beauty, called to the house asking for water while her parents were out. But wanting more he pressed his attention on Gwenffrwd. However, having de opted herself to God she rejected his advances, angry at being turned down he attacked her and started to tear away her clothes. She fled towards her uncle’s (St Beuno) church, hoping that he would be able to aid her, but Prince Caradoc was quicker and caught her on a hillside. Winifred fought back, so Caradoc, in a fit of rage beheaded her with his sword (1).
St Beuno had been insider is church nearby church and came outside to find Winifred’s decapitated body and with Caradoc standing over her with his bloody sword. St Beuno cursed Caradoc, who immediately died and melted away. As St Beuno picked up her head in grief, a spring welled up from the ground at the spot where Winifred had fallen. St Beuno replaced St Winifreds head on her neck, and after a short prayer the wound was healed and the young woman was resurrected, leaving only a slight scar. Red marked stones at the bottom of the well are said to be stained with blood of St Winifred. She then went on be an influential figure in the early church in Wales. 

The pool where people bath. water enters the pool from the well head in the shrine.

St. Winifred was a local Welsh saint of little importance until her relics were translated, in 1136, to a magnificent shrine in Shrewsbury Abbey. Then two years later Prior Robert of Shrewsbury wrote a history of her life and devotion. Her original tomb was retained at Gwytherin and St. Winifred’s Well. The well has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries, including a number of monarchs. In 1189 Richard I, the Lionheart, made a pilgrimage to the Well. Then in 1416 Henry V paid a thanks giving visit following his victory at Agincourt, walk from Shresbury to St Winefride’s Well. According to the Welsh poet Tudor Aled, Edward IV came on pilgrimage in 1461 , when he placed a pinch of earth taken from beside the Well upon his crown. The believe and dedication continued when in 1686 James II and Queen Mary Beatrice came on pilgrimage to pray for an heir; according to Thomas Pennant the Jesuits then in charge of the Well presented the King with a present of the very shift worn by his Great Grand Mother Mary Stuart was wearing when she lost her head! Strange how they still had, and were then able to give back when James II visited.

Detail showing the complicated dome over the well head, supporting thechapel above.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII visiting holy wells was actively discouraged, and many pilgrim wells disappeared. In 1579 Queen Elizabeth’s council issued a command to the Council of the Marches to “discover all Papist activities and recommend measures for suppressing them… to pay particular attention to the pilgrimages to St Winefride’s Well and in view of the claim that the water is medicinal to appoint two men to test its properties; if not medicinal the Well should be destroyed.”

However attempts to suppress the well seemed to have the opposite effect and visitor numbers may have increased throughout the seventeenth century. In 1625 the Bishop of Bangor reported .“There is a great concourse of people at St Winefride’s Well, in an old church near a public Mass is said continually”
Early in the 20th century the well dried up due to mining on Halkyn Mountain as the water was diverted. The well today is fed by the local water utilities so it will not have the same mineral properties as the early pilgrims would have taken advantage of.

The healing waters of St Winifred’s (Winifride) Holy Well have attracted pilgrims for over 1300 years and the crypt in which the well lies was stacked with crutches left by the cured invalids until some time in the 1960’s, though can still be seen on display.

In order to effect cure for whatever ailment should be troubling you, the pilgrim should enter the water three times for the cure to be effective although even this process does not necessarily guarantee success. Now I only have a slightly dogy knee but the water was very cold and I only managed to tolerate entering the pool twice. When I say cold, believe me it was! I think I’ll stick to more pragmatic methods that will be more beneficial to me. Today around 3600 visitors have been recorded and the numbers have been said to be increasing significantly (2). 

References

  1. Early British Kingdoms. http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/winifred.html. Accessed 2016.07.06
  2. BBC News (2012) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-18058646

 Lligwy – 3 Ages in Stone

There are not many places where you can find evidence of more than 5000 years of continual human activity in such a small area. But on the eastern coast of Angelsey there just such a place. 5000 years set out in stone and human endeavour, both spiritual and pragmatic. Today Lligwy, hidden up a narrow single track road that only adds to the sense of isolation, is a group of buildings that include a Neolithic burial chamber, an Iron Age village and an old abandoned church. 

Neolithic megalithic tomb chamber, comprising eight stones of differing shapes, all supporting a massive capstone, 5.9m by 5.2m and 1.1m thick. The capstone is estimated to weight 25 tons. The tome constructed over a natural fissure in the rock so that the chamber had a height of about 2.0m. The shear size of the capstone and the fact that it is built over the fissure gives the tomb a squat appearance. There is no trace of the original cairn, although over the centuries soil has crept up around the stones. The chamber was excavated in 1909, when two layers of deposits were recorded, separated by a layer of paving. The deposits contained unburnt bone, human and animal, pot sherds and some flints and the upper deposit was covered by a layer of limpet shells. Between fifteen and thirty individuals were represented in the tomb chamber. Some of the pottery appears to be Bronze Age and at least one of the layers may represent the re-use of the tomb (1). 

Lligwy Burial Chamber.

About 400m away, hidden in a small woodland is another amazing find. The secret here is a small settlement with the foundations of the round huts, and perimeter wall still visible. Huge upright slabs of stone create the entrances to each building. When this was occupied is still not absolutely clear. Din Lligwy is a later Prehistoric type walled settlement set on the summit of a limestone plateau close to its precipitous northern edge. The internal buildings were cleared from 1905 onwards when significant quanties of Roman material were recovered, mostly of the late third-fourth century (2). 

Looking along the edge of the perimet wall which includes one of the rectangular bulidlings. Taken from the North Eastern corner of the settlement

There are two circular buildings within the walls. Excavations within the hut areas revealed coins, pottery, glass and a small silver ingot (3). The other rectangular buildings may have been workshops or animal shelters. 

The foundations and lower walls from the circular hut in the North Western part of the aettlement.

The perimeter wall cannot be considered defensive and the settlement probably belonged to a farming community. That said the clearly defined outlines of the huts and other buildings can, with a little imagination, give a picture of how people lived so long ago. In fact the place feels much older than the 4th Century, and may well be as shards of flint have a been found on site. This is hardly surprising considering the proximity of the burial chamber.

A aerial view adapted from an Apple Maps satellite picture from the iPad. I do use products other than Apple honest!

As you walk from the road to Din Lligwy you pass Lligwy Chapel in the field to your right. This is now a ruin, but in its setting it is difficult to ignore as it over looks Lligwy Bay to the north. It’s close proximity to bothe burial chamber and Iron Age settlement adds it its gravitas. Little is known about it’s origins and dedication as the written history is very sparse. The oldest parts of the chapel date from the first half of the 12th century, and it is mainly built of rubble stone, with very little dressed so tone visible in its walls.  


Following years of Viking raids many churches on Anglesey in north-west Wales were built in stone and the Norman influence also dictated more permanent buildings as they sought to gain control of the island. It has been suggested that the chapel may originally have been a memorial chapel, or connected to a royal court nearby (4). Though after the Normans gave up trying to secure the island Gruffudd ap Cynan (d 1137) and his successor Owain Gwynedd (d. 1170) built many churches on the island, and Capel Lligwy fits in with this time frame (2). Equally it may have been built to serve an expanding population in medieval times (5). Despite this, it seems to have remained as a chapel of ease rather than become a parish church in its own right. There may be something in this theory as there are no burials around the church.


That said the 19th-century antiquarian Angharad Llwyd claims that a fox had once taken shelter in the ruins, and when it was dug out, a vault was discovered, “containing several human skeletons, which crumbled into dust, when exposed to the air”. She added that further exploration of the vault then revealed “a large mass of human bones, several feet in depth” (6).  Whatever the history, it is just that now – history. Despite the fact that we live in a world of access to instant fact and disinformation, there are still mysteries that Amy never be fully explained. Now where is my time machine?
References

  1. Coflein. http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/95532/details/lligwy-burial-chamber-near-moelfre. 
  2. Williams, D.M. (2001) Angelsey: A guide to ancient monuments of the isle of Angelsey. CADW. 
  3. CADW. http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/dinlligwyhutgroup/?lang=
  4. Jones, G. I. L. (2006). Anglesey Churches. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch. 
  5. Yates, M. J.; Longley, David (2001). Anglesey: A guide to ancient monuments on the Isle of Anglesey.
  6. Llwyd, A.  (2007) [1833]. A History of the Island of Mona. Llansadwrn, Anglesey: Llyfrau Magma.

St Seiriol’s Well

Penmon at the eastern end of the Menai Strait of Angelsy is small, compact but has a great deal of history. As well as the Trwyn Du Lighthouse there is an ancient well linked to one of Welsh Saints dating back to the 6th Century. St. Seiriol’s Well survives near the Penmon Priory and may have its origins going back to the monastery’s earliest period or even earlier. The Bronze and Iron Age peoples often revered water edges and places. The number of site that have revealed votive offerings in the form of gold, valuables and broken weaponry is a testimony to the fact that water was an important aspect of their lives. So it makes sense of the early church to build on this reverence and subsume it into their teachings and places of worship. The concept of “adopt and adapt” is always a powerful means of change. The well was built by the monks of Penmon and was believed to have healing powers by some people visiting it.  


The earliest churches in Wales were connected with the cells or abodes of hermits. The foundations of of a circular building next to the well may be St Seiriol’s, but it would be very difficult to prove this now. Attached to the cell on level ground in front of the well was a small primitive building in which the surrounding inhabitants assembled for the purpose of prayer, but again the original date is unknowable. If only we had a time machine! According to legend, Seiriol regularly used to meet St Cybi of Holyhead at Clorach Well near Llannerch-y-medd, 17 miles away. Seiriol travelling with his back to the sun in the morning and returning with his face to the east in the afternoon, became known as Seiriol the Pale, the other, Cybi the Tanned. Whether this is true is open to debate, but it could equally be a play on a parable between light and dark. St Seiriol was buried on nearby Puffin Island.

The entrance to the well.
The Holy Well is a spring emerging from a cliff behind the church. It is reached by a path on the left just beyond the car park, which skirts the monastic fish pond. The crystal clear spring is surrounded by a slab floor with stone benches around the sides. However, on the day that Aunty and I visited the well was dry, someone must have left the plug out. The waters were thought to have healing powers and were visited by the sick and infirm in the hope of a cure. Although it is the source of water for the monastery, the structures are relatively modern. The roofed inner chamber around the pool is of brick and dates from 1710. The lower courses and lower antechamber with seats on either side may be somewhat earlier, but no medieval finds were made during recent excavations. The so-called ‘cell’ beneath the cliff on the left is of uncertain date and purpose. It has been suggested that these may be the remains of the original cell or church. If so, this would make it the oldest remaining Christian building in Wales.
The remains of a circular structure are clearly vidible to the left of the well. Could this really be St Seiriol’s cell?
A lesser known legend concerns Seiriol’s brothers, kings of nearby Rhos and Llŷn. Apparently they decided that the monk’s humble cell was far too lowly for a royal, so they founded a monastery nearby and made Seiriol the first Abbot of Penmon Priory.
Inside the well, showing the water basin and the seating around the walls.

Trwyn Du and Ynys Seriol

On the 17th August, 1831 the steamer Rothsay Castle left Liverpool at 11am on her regular journey to the Menai Straights. However, the rough weather made the sailing difficult and she made very little headway. The passengers became worried and asked the Captain to turn back, but he refused. By midnight he had still no made land, and an hour later the Rothsay Castle struck Dutchman Bank, then out of control struck a sand bank off Penmon. Of the 150 passengers on board, 130 lost their lives. This hastened the decision by Trinity House to build a lighthouse to guide ships on the Eastern tip of Angelsey. Work commenced in 1837 to build the black and white stone tower on a reef between Trwyn Du and Puffin Island. The light was lit in 1838.


Originally manned by two keepers, it was automated in 1922 and the keepers were withdrawn. In 1996 the light was converted to solar power. As we were walking around the shore we heard a bell being tolled on a regular basis. But I couldn’t see why or decide exactly where the ringing was coming from. The explanation comes from a further modification carried out in 1996 when a unique mechanism was installed to sound a 178 Kg bell every sixty seconds to act as a fog signal.
As well as the reef marked by the lighthouse, the small strait between Trwyn Du and Puffin Island has another rocky outcrop dangerous to shipping. This is marked by a large red beacon.


Puffin Island or Ynys Seiriol, refers to Saint Seriol. The son of Owain Ddantgwyn, a 5th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, and the brother of Saint Einion Frenin, a 5th- or 6th-century king in the Llŷn Peninsula, Seiriol founded and governed a clas (ecclesiastical settlement) at Penmon on the Anglesey. In later life, he abandoned his responsibilities there to establish a hermitage on the nearby island, where his remains are thought to rest.


King Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd is said to have sheltered here in around 630 when fleeing an invasion from the Kingdom of Northumbria. A monastery existed on the island in the late 12th century and was mentioned by Gerald of Wales who visited the area in 1188. He claimed that, whenever there was strife within the community of monks, a plague of mice would devour all their food. The ecclesiastical emails still exist on the island. Puffin Island is now privately owned, and has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and it’s not possible to land unfortunately, so this will have to remain an unattainable island for now.

Saint Dwynwen – The Welsh St Valentine: Welsh 100 No 44

Aunty and I were on holiday recently for two weeks in North Wales, and would you believe it the weather is offering rain, gales and more rain! But we will not be daunted.  On a small tidal island off the South West corner of Angelsey lies the ruins of an old church, Llandwyn. Even today it’s not easy to get to and requires a mile walk along the beach from the car park.  

Aunty striding along the beach towards Llandwyn Island.

The island has a church dedicated to Dwynwen who lived during the 5th century AD and was one of 24 daughters of St. Brychan, a Welsh prince of Brycheiniog (Brecon). Legend has it she fell in love with young man named Maelon, but was forced to rejected his advances. Her father has decreed that she would marry someone else. Unhappy with her plight Dwynwen prayed to be released from the unhappy love and dreamed that she was given a potion to do this. However, the potion turned Maelon to ice. She then prayed that she be granted three wishes: 1) that Maelon be revived, 2) that all true lovers find happiness, and 3) that she should never again wish to be married.

The remains of Llandwyn Chusrch, with the Twr Mawr Lighthouse behind.

After this she fled her home and went away with her sister Cain and brother Dyfnan around Wales, preaching and establishing many Christian churches. She founded a convent on Llanddwyn, where a well named after her became a place of pilgrimage after her death in 465AD. 


Dwynwen became known as the patron saint of lovers and pilgrimages were made to her holy well on the island. It was said that the faithfulness of a lover could be divined through the movements of eels that lived in the well. This was done by the woman first scattering breadcrumbs on the surface, then laying her handkerchief on the surface. If the eel disturbed it then her lover would be faithful. We looked hard for the well but couldn’t find it, but after 27 years of marriage we don’t have anything to prove to each other.


Visitors would leave offerings at her shrine, and so popular was this place of pilgrimage that it became the richest in the area during Tudor times. This funded a substantial chapel that was built in the 16th century on the site of Dwynwen’s original chapel. In fact donations from pilgrims provided over nine-tenths of the church’s income in 1535. This all came to an end after King Henry VIII’s split with the Catholic Church, which put an end to pilgrimages and cut off the church’s main source of income. The main porch survived until the mid 1700s. Locals used to light candles here on the 25th April as an offering to Dwynwen to watch over their cattle.

So when is St Dwynwen’s Day? On January 25th send your loved one a token of your love. Go on you know you want to!

St Cewydd

During the weekend while we were pretending to be Dr Livingstone and searching for the source of the Severn we stayed at a small and quiet caravan site at Disserth, right under a delightful old church. It is dedicated to St. Cewydd, who is said to have been one of the many saintly sons of Caw of Prydyn, a Pictish king in the Strathclyde area of modern Scotland. With the rest of his family, he would have moved south to Edeirnion in Wales, around the early 6th century. However, the evidence for this family relationship is mostly based on the unreliable Iolo MSS and must therefore be treated as highly suspect.


Traditionally, Cewydd became a monk in St. Cadog’s monastery at Llancarfan (Morgannwg) and places in South Wales named after him may date from this time spent in the area. Llangewydd, near Bridgend, has lost its original church dedicated to him, now only traceable in the fieldname, Caer Hen Eglwys. Lancaut near Chepstow is also probably named for Cewydd; along with Cusop, near Hay-on-Wye, and the extinct Capel Cawey in Monachlog Ddu (Pembrokes). Perhaps he also took evangelical trips to Somerset, where Kewstoke is believed to derive its name from Cewydd.


Elsewhere, place-name evidence shows that Cewydd eventually settled in Elfael (Radnorshire) where he made a number of foundations. The churches of Aberedw and Disserth are both dedicated to him. Cewydd’s Retreat, Cil Cewydd, appears in the adjoining parish of Llanfihangel Bryn Pabuan and his hill-slope, Rhiw Gewydd, is a mountain track above Llandilo Graban, possibly leading to his brother Meilig’s home in Llowes. He probably died in this region on a date variously said to have been on 1st, 2nd or 15th July. The latter appears to have been the most widely accepted. All three dates also have close associations with Cewydd’s English equivalent, St. Swithun. Both were the ‘Rain-Saints’ of their respective nations and it seems likely that these particular days were originally pagan Celtic festivals, of some kind, related to the weather. It is popularly said that if it rains on St. Cewydd’s day, it will rain for forty days and forty nights! But this is Wales and so this will always happen every year at least once. Rain is what we do well here.


St Cewydd established the first church here in Disserth, but in reality there is little to support or dispute this claim based on how long ago this occurred. This may be supported by the name Disserth, which derives from the Latin “desertum”, indicating a wild and secluded spot, which can be applied to a hermit’s cell or retreat. But the church is certainly old, and one of the few that has not been “improved” by the Victorians. It is thought that the main church belongs to the 13th century, with the font dating to the 14th. The church was reroofed in the 16th C with some additions and minor alterations in the 18thC. Probably the windows.What is truly fascinating is that the pews are still present, enscribed with the family initials and date of installation. The earliest I could find was dated 1666. 


The parish records contain some interesting accounts of the parishioners and their habits. 1694 Betty Jones was “presented” before the congregation for “shoving straw up her neighbour’s nose during divine service”. Perhaps sermons have always been boring, and the record doesn’t tell if the neighbour was sleeping or if they were both messing about. Nothing really changes. I remember being very bored in chapel at times when I was young and desperate to be outside aging.– luckily there was no straw available in my days!


Another story concerns the need for exorcism. And every church needs an exorcism. In the nearby town of Trecoed lived a tanner, Charles Lewis. He was known for his dishonesty and double dealing. He was reputed to have two scales, one giving double weights when he was buying and one short weights when selling. When he died no one grieved, but he came back and his spirit molested travellers after dark. The local parson, Jones summoned the ghost to meet him at Disserth Church, and there with three other parsons they faced the spirit. Soon three of the parsons fled the church in fear. But eventually Parson Jones emergent triumphant with the evil spirit trapped in a snuff box which was pushed down into a local bog. 100 and 1 things to do with a snuff box. No there’s a title for a TV show!


Not all the priests were heroes though. Kilvert, in his diary, gives an amusing account of a victor from the 1860’s. “He would get up to the pulpit without an idea about what he was going to say, and would begin this: ‘Ha yes, here we are. And it is a fine day. I congratulate up on he fine day, and glad to see so many of you here. Yes indeed. Ha, yes, very well. Now then I shall take for my text…..yes let’s see. You are all sinners and so am I. Yes indeed’.” I wonder if there were any Betty Jones’ and straw around?


In most villages there is a Church and a compliment of houses surrounding it. Not so in Disserth. There is a Church, yes, but no houses only a farm. This is because Wales didn’t have villages following the English plan. Parishes were large, and house and far,s were scattered around the parish. The nearest village was about a mile away, but the parish church remained isolated but central to the parish in Disserth. That said this is probably why there are so many ancient unspoilt and original churches scattered about Wales. So as I sit here outside the church wall the birds sing their hearts out. A song thrush repeats it’s refrain loudly in a tree near by, a wren completes it song with a trill and a flourish, the blackbird nearby sings it’s unchained melody. It’s almost lulling me in a period of quiet contemplation – but I’m not good at reflection and decide on another cup of tea instead.

Glastonbury without the festival

We are staying just outside Bath for a few days, but the caravan has an extra resident. Number 1 daughter has muscled in on the act this time and sudden,y everything is so much more expensive than usual! We’ve never been to Glastonbury, well except for Number 1 whose been to the festival so I’m not sure if that counts. It has an unusual atmosphere, almost every shop has a mythical edge selling gems, new age clothes (is it still new age after all this time?), witches brews and spell books, mystical books an know how, meditation and mindfulness courses. Lots of people seeking something, but never quite finding it.

 

But the sun was shining and we had a look around Glastonbury Abbey, which became the second richest religious setting before being ‘done over’ by Henry VIII as he seized the churches assets. And he did a pretty good job of it as well. In 1536, during the 27th year of the reign of Henry VIII, there were over 800 monasteries, nunneries and friaries in Britain. By 1541, there were none. More than 10,000 monks and nuns had been dispersed and the buildings had been seized by the Crown to be sold off or leased to new lay occupiers. 

 

St Patrick’s Chapel. a very old legend that St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, came back to Britain in his old age, collected together some hermits he found near Glastonbury and became their first Abbot there. While there is no sound evidence, documentary or archaeological, that the Apostle of Ireland either lived or died at Glastonbury.
      

There’s been a church here for a long time, but it was never a very rich site. Originally set up by the local Saxin King in the 7th century it began to accumulate wealth and property, and following the Norman invasion in 1066 is was further developed.

  
 Then in 1184 the abbey church was destroyed by fire. Seeking the huge funds required to rebuild it was a surprise to everyone when the monks found a deep grave in the cemetery to the south side of the Lady Chapel. They then claimed that this was the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, and attracted a large number of pilgrims, who also left a lot of money to the Abbey. That was very convenient! These bones were reburied, much later, in 1278 within the Abbey Church, in a black marble tomb, in the presence of King Edward I. He then used this as propaganda to support his attacks on Wales. Just like the English Rugby team he failed against the Welsh more often than he succeeded.

  
The legend of the Holy Thorn tells that it came here as the staff carried by Joseph of Arimathea. It is said that Joseph was a trader in metal, so came to this area for lead from the Mendips, and when his boat arrived at Wearyall Hill he disembarked, planting his staff into the ground whilst he rested. In the morning he noticed his staff had taken root, thus becoming the Holy Thorn. The Thorn in the abbey grounds is said to be a descendant of the original tree. It flowers twice each year, around Easter and at Christmas.  

From there we went onto to Glastonbury Tor. This lone limestone knoll stands out above the Someerset Levels and is visible from all directions as you approach Glastonbury. Before the levels were drained it must have stood out like a beacon among the marshes and flooded levels.

  
 The archeology shows that man has used the hill from the Neolithic period, with evidence of buildings through the Saxon period but the main focus is now on the ruined tower of St Michael’s Church survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 when, except for the tower, it was demolished The Tor was the place of execution where Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, was hanged, drawn and quartered along with two of his monks, John Thorne and Roger James. Not a nice way to end, and quite possibly they didn’t agree with Henry’s new order.

  
 But now the views from the top are fantastic. This is looking towards the Mendips, where Chedar Gorge can be found.