Inspired by Pilgrimage
Somewhere in Switzerland, not so very long ago, I asked Barbara if she would consider walking the Pembrokeshire coastal path with me. The idea caught fire.
I had already hiked two days of this path with my husband, to Strumble Head Lighthouse, several years ago while visiting my parents, who live in Little Newcastle. His knees now no longer allow too many steep down hills owing to his dedication to athletics as a young man. I was determined to return.
February found me enjoying the “open mic” evening at Pepper’s in Fishguard. Myles Pepper mentioned his son David was doing something with pilgrimage and the coastal path. Another stone fell into place.
Back in Switzerland I felt this needed to be carefully planned if I was to be responsible for my friend’s experience of West Wales! I found “Guided Pilgrimage” online and the lovely Christine Smith. Several calls and emails later I had a plan: we would walk the Welsh part of the Wexford- Pembrokeshire Pilgrim’s Way. It would be bookended with a guide on the first and last day to give us a deeper insight. We would stay at the Old School Hostel in Trefin. David agreed to act as our guide for on the first day; Christine would join us on our final day’s walking rounding it off with a pilgrim’s welcome at St Davids Cathedral.
Feeling a bit like Thelma and Louise, Barbara and I set out on the drive to Wales and arrived in Trefin without mishap.
David picked us up the following, Monday, morning. Our journey felt blessed from the start. David started by showing an historic pilgrim’s stone at a crossing - I became aware of the importance of crossing places. How old they often are. The importance of meeting.
I would love to return to St Gwyndaf’s Church. I was struck by the hermit’s face carved into the ancient wooden beam and idea that a hermit used to live in the church attic. We walked up a hill to a Neolithic burial site, or a door into the underworld? The blackness inside was rich and deep.
Onto Goodwick and the well where we prepared to begin walking. We were asked to choose a quartz stone to accompany us. Pilgrimage is different from hiking. “The intent is probably more important than the destination.” We held our stones and spent a moment thinking about our questions, our intentions, our reasons for walking.
Maybe we didn’t take it as rigorously as pilgrims of old. Our backpacks were still heavy. I was carrying my art materials. Barbara was in charge of food, swimming gear and her book – to read whilst I painted. It was the first week of September 2023, unusually hot. The sun glowed around us.
At Pwll Deri we stopped for “lunch”. A hearty breakfast and good dinner with only snacks during the day was the plan. I painted a small picture of the stunning view.
After walking and talking, David sang us a blessing, his voice perfectly pitched to suit the dark cliff face – I’m sure the baby seals basking below enjoyed it too!
Towards the end of the day we arrived at a welcome sight – a beach! It was heaven to dive into the cooling blue.
Press pause: can catch the light. Don’t let the people escape.
Feeling refreshed we dressed and encouraged to walk barefoot up the lane leading to Melin Tregwynt. Fairies live in such places.
We were welcomed in the mill cafe with cake and tea by my parents, who drove us back to the hostel. Dinner was overlooking the Pembrokeshire hills at the Ship Inn. Watch the birds exchange news, finally sink into bed.
David, as the pilgrimage officer for Pembrokeshire, was an informative and supportive guide. On Tuesday he picked us up, we dropped our car off at Abereiddy Beach and then drove back to Melin via the church at Llanrhain. We admired the font, said to have come from Jerusalem, were shown the “bread stone” where pilgrims measured the size of their remaining loaf.
Fortified at Melin Tregwynt we bid David goodbye and were enveloped by the lane to the beach once more.
The blue sky above, sparkling sea below - our feet moved almost of their own accord. A wooden bridge, a stream on its way to wed the sea. Let’s test my new painting board, handmade by Two Rivers Paper.
We followed the sign to Carreg Samson, where I gave Barbara a rest and my paintbrushes something to do.
Breathtaking views spread themselves beneath us. At the close of the days walk a swim ... another splendid dinner at the pub.
David showed us a vast standing stone in the back garden of pretty holiday cottages. We walked where Cromwell and Henry VII had walked– on the King’s Road. I could hear echoes of shouts, clanking armour, horses neighing. We left David to walk from Abereiddy to White Sands.
White Sands was of course a treat. Even more so at 35° C! Dinner at the Shed, delicious food – even more so for having walked 15km.
On Thursday at Melin Trefin Mill with David, calls for “Teddybear” rang out. We contemplated the life of those who worked there 100 years ago.
From White Sands we set off to St David’s. It was meditative. Step by step. Winding paths generously decorated with blackberries. Convinced our endeavour had divine approval we walked in quiet contemplation or gentle discussion.
On the wild land above the sea we rested on a cluster of happy stones – they were all smiling.
Walking through the heather and gorse we took a wrong turning, entirely alone apart from some none too friendly ponies. The brown pony, realising my trepidation, lashed out at me. Sensing his intention I kept my distance. Things could have come to an abrupt end.
At the RNLI St Davids lifeboat station we turned inland to St Justinian’s ruined chapel happy to find a cup of coffee and ice cream. From there we took, yes, I admit it, a bit of a shortcut cross country.
We returned to the coast at Porthclais Harbour, and from this medieval structure came to the ancient site of St Nons.
In my studio practice I have been delving into myth inspired by Sharon Blackie and Angharad Wynne. Archetypes and stories. The pilgrimage fit seamlessly into this exploration. It was moving to feel the lay of the land, the ancientness of the stones, caressing their creases. Christine pointed out the stone circle, evidence of an Iron Age settlement. St Non’s cross dates from the 7th or 9th century. Layers upon layers of human story. I filled a bottle of water at the well, used to paint this picture of found objects from the pilgrimage.
Despite the heat I wanted to paint the shrine. A robin became interested. He sat on the triangular stone at the top of the arch surveying me with his beady eye, serenading me. Whisked away in a flash of red. Back again. Song. I have never painted in such joyful surroundings! I can’t say my work reflected the beauty of the setting.
Walking into St David’s, we didn’t enter the Cathedral, keeping it for our pilgrim’s welcome. It was enough to have spent time with St Non’s.
Two new guests arrived at the hostel. John, 80 and Mary, 71, from Oxford. Mary enjoyed body surfing, John folded his body to the floor delighting us with a sitar concert. They are planning a river boat cruise down the Rhine to Basel – I say they must visit.
Friday. Holiday. Good luck doesn’t take a break. After shopping for gifts at Vincent Davis we drove to White Sands. School children lining the road with union jack flags. “What’s going on?” I ask a policeman. “Somebody is driving through”. “Who?” “A member of the royal family.”
Quick, park the car, phones in position – here they come! Princess Kate waves! Kate and William going to commemorate the late Queen in St Davids Cathedral.
Delighted we drove on to White Sands where I painted before playing with the waves.
Our bodies rested, replete with sun, sea and good vibes we closed the day with a delicious meal of Preseli lamb chops from the BBQ at my parent’s.
Saturday: our final pilgrimage day. Two fried eggs, toast and tea to strengthen our bodies, while Chris strengthened our minds during the day with quotes, blessings and information. We walked from Solva to St David’s so we could approach Britain’s smallest city from the other side.
Chris also gave us a stone to take on the journey, the red rock used to build the Cathedral. With this talisman in our pockets we arrived at Nine Wells. It hadn’t occurred to me that Nine Wells actually has nine wells! Several of them have been capped, there is still one “active”.
“The first peace which is the most important is that which comes within the souls of people when they realise their relationship , their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realise that at the centre of the Universe dwells the Great Spirit and that its centre is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
(Black Elk, from Chris’s collection of blessings)
Onto St Davids via a beach to enjoy our last swim. The Cathedral is awe inspiring. There has been a church on this site since the 6th century. In 1123 Pope Calixtus II bestowed a papal privilege upon St Davids Cathedral, “two pilgrimages to St Davids are equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem.”
Janet Ingram, education and pilgrim officer for the Cathedral, guided us round its history. I spoke my thanks in a niche where Henry II had prayed. She presented us with a welcome cup of tea and cake as well as a certificate. Enjoy the soaring voice of the choir at Evensong and uplift our spirits. Back at the Old School Hostel after another unforgettable day.
With our pilgrimage ended, our stay in Trefin over, we moved to Little Newcastle. Rain set in. Barbara and I rounded off our time visiting Nevern church, its Celtic cross and bleeding yew tree, saying farewell to our pilgrimage at the pilgrim’s cross.
Our final port of call was Pentre Ifan, back to my parents via the Preseli Hills, admiring the light shining on this wonderful world.
It was a truly memorable experience, one that I hope will show me some answers, guide my intention and feed my soul for a long time to come.
Thank you to David, Chris and Janet for your information, blessings and support.
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