A Visit to Pennant Melangell (Part One)
How much would I love to visit Pennant Melangell again, such a remote place and so full of atmosphere and meaning. But sad to relate, it is hidden so deep within the mountains of Powys, along such small and obscure roads, that I lack the courage to attempt a journey there. So many possibilities for getting lost, such an exhausting and worrying outing that I feel would detract from the pleasures and benefits of such a trip. But I live in hope that one day I will be able to gather both energy and bravery to manage to do so.
I can remember well the first time I went there, in the baking hot summer of 1983, on a disastrous camping holiday to a midge-filled campsite, with a borrowed tent and a continually crying six month old baby. I also wept copiously at the realisation that this "holiday" was a torturous exercise in endurance, with the then-husband disappearing to fish in Lake Bala daily, and myself exhausted from lack of sleep, in the middle of deepest Wales in a heatwave.
At that time Pennant Melangell was relatively unknown and obscure, then as now lying at the end of a single track country road. The church stood firmly padlocked within a a churchyard of long grass bleached by the sun, and looked for all the world as if it were abandoned. The original "cell" at the East end of the church was at that time crumbling and square-shaped , prior to its subsequent demolition and rebuilding in a more appropriate curved Romanesque manner, following the original foundations. Through the keyhole I could see a neglected space, with a fireplace in one corner.
It was so very disappointing to be unable to go into the church ; since discovering St. Melangell at the age of 11 via a magnificent volume of Butlers' Lives of The Saints, I had felt a particular affection for this holy woman, and coming here was something very special. Of course I was unable to articulate any of this to anyone, and had to pretend a visit here was the same as to any old building, for fear of ridicule. Saint Melangell was "my" saint, at that time barely known of, and I felt a proprietal warmth toward her, no doubt coloured by the romantic aspects of her flight from parental control and life of solitude in the bosom of nature. Her courage and fortitude came second only to her unwavering devotion to God and singleminded dedication to a life in His service. Far from being the bunny-hugging whimsical figure she is so often portrayed as, she must have been a woman of steely determination and dedicated spirituality, able to inspire others by her example.
In the end, all I could do was to slide the blue crystal rosary I had bought with me under the ill-fitting door, as both a gift and some tangible evidence that I had actually been there. It was probably thrown away later during the reconstruction work, a sentimental nothing. My faith at that time was a flimsy and shapeless thing, not really faith in the truest sense of the word but a directionless uninformed longing. I was beguiled by the simpering Madonnas of Catholic iconography, comforting images to cling to without looking beneath the surface at the deeper meanings of belief in God. Pictures and rosary beads sufficed to represent the beginnings of a lifelong journey, often abandoned and still continuing to this day.
I was to revisit Pennant Melangell many years later, with a different husband and a subsequent son...but more of that later.
I am longing to go back to Holywell again, to feel the ancient peace and balm of St. Winifred's Well - having already been there twice this summer, another visit before the colder months would be so very welcome.
The route there is somehow always fraught, with the A55 being as intimidating as any motorway, multiple signs and sliproads which often seem to contradict the sat-nav's directions, making the journey exhausting and stressful. But once arrived, walking down the steep hill to the Well, past the signs proclaiming it to be the "Lourdes of Wales", beneath the Sacred Heart statue with arms outstretched in welcome, and dodging the blue Arriva buses swaying around the bends in the road, one starts to feel more attuned to this special place, remembering the many pilgrims who have travelled here for centuries, in hope of miracles. That it has survived at all through both the Reformation and the iconoclastic Puritan Commonwealth is miraculous in itself.
This is not the place for dry historical facts on how the well came to be, and its vicissitudes through history - there is plenty of information available both online, and in the excellent book on the subject by T. W. Pritchard. I am more concerned with the atmosphere and quality of the place.
The spring which forms the well rises ceaselessly day and night in a star-shaped stone pool, surrounded by soaring columns reaching up to the vaulted ceiling, the water a deep crystalline green, the flowing of which gives its surface a constant gentle movement, almost appearing as if it were simmering, although of course the water is bone-chillingly cold. Pilgrims, grateful or posibly otherwise, have carved their many names and dates into the walls round about, often with remarkable calligraphic precision, so that yesterday's vandalism has become with the passing of time, another layer of history.
A statue of St. Winifred overlooks the pool, standing beneath a gothic canopy intricately carved like lace in stone, surrounded by lilies and roses, presiding over a twinkling sea of devotional candlelight. Many of the ruby red candles carry handwritten prayers, pleas for divine intervention in heartbreaking stories of illness and loss.
No sun penetrates the inside of the well chamber, where the walls are mottled with damp in shades of slate and charcoal, providing a sharp contrast to the bright outside world, especially on a hot summer's day, when the bathing pool glitters in the sun, along with its shimmering crown of may-flies.
There is an indefinable quality here which has continued to draw many kinds of visitors for centuries - some come to bathe and pray for miracles, when human help has done all it can, and hope seems lost. Others come to look for reflection and inner tranquility, yet others to admire the architecture and the promise of a cup of tea next door. In summer, it's busy with Irish and Traveller pilgrims, whole families arriving in stylish motorhomes, to bathe and take away containers of holy well water.
And some people come here for no other reason that they feel drawn here, without quite knowing why. It is a beautiful and special place.
The Holy House of Walsingham
The Holy House at Walsingham is a recreation of a recreation, but no less beautiful for that, rooted as it is in almost a thousand years of constant devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham on this spot. The original was constructed in 1061 as a replica of the humble dwelling in Nazareth where the young girl Mary received the astonishing news of impending and God-given motherhood, and this tiny building received thousands of pilgrims, royal and otherwise, until its destruction in 1538 at the iconoclastic hands of Henry VIII.
The version we see today dates from the 1930's, and is nestled in the very heart of the Shrine Church. Looking at its soot-blackened walls, its diminutive size comes as something of a surprise, although the high ceiling makes it feel a little larger. It is an intimate space where pilgrims speak little, if at all, focusing their attention on the figure of Our Lady of Walsingham above the altar. Unlike so many images of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Walsingham is not pretty in the way we have come to expect; she does not smile, but looks straight ahead with an expression of exhausted determination, as if she has encountered much suffering, yet still finds the strength to carry on. There is something in her begrimed features that reminds me of the faces of survivors of disasters, and although she may wear a cloak richly embroidered with roses and pomegranates, and a handmade lace veil beneath her crown, her expression tells much of the suffering that she knows in time the baby upon her knee will have to endure, and that she will witness his humiliations and cruel death.
The soot from thousands of votive candles has given the interior brickwork a velvety black finish, and inlaid in the walls are fragments of the original Shrine building, rather like the cherries in a fruit cake....some are delicate pieces of Gothic tracery, or architectural details, with occasionally a rose or the tiny face of an angel. The very smallness of these carvings illustrates how thoroughly and with what vitriol the original holy house must have been demolished.
Silver lamps are suspended from the ceiling, each one twinkling in ruby or sapphire, and representing the devotions of thousands of modern day pilgrims. It is a beautiful place, the focus of so many prayers and hopes of so many different people, and as a priest with his tiny congregation recite the Litany of Our Lady, with its cascade of poetic images, time stands still in the presence of Holiness.
New Brighton August 2017
This August we were lucky enough to spend three days away from home, rediscovering the pleasures of New Brighton, Southport and the coast at Formby. It was a wonderful holiday, blessed with gorgeous weather, warm and sunny.
I love the journey from Liverpool via Merseyrail, travelling up the side of the Wirral in its noisy and somewhat scruffy yellow-liveried coaches, the excitement of rounding the final curve after Wallasey through wastelands of rosebay willow herb and brambles, and seeing the expanse of the Irish Sea spread out before us. And the final destination of New Brighton station, so small and Edwardian, with just two platforms- I often wonder how it was able to cope with the thousands of holidaymakers and day trippers who used to come here in the resort's heyday. It must have been bustling to say the least, with the added excitement of being able to see the sea as soon as you stepped out of the station. Opposite are a row of one-time shops, of which now only few are still businesses, including the quirky independent bookshop "Literally..." There are remains of a pierced metal awning, part of a stylish canopy that once protected shoppers from sun and rain. Up the steepness of Atherton Street is the monumental dome of the Roman Catholic church of St. Peter, Paul and Philomena, while downhill leads to the waterfront and the useful but not so picturesque "Light" development, featuring, of all things, an immense supermarket.
It is difficult to imagine what an immensely popular holiday destination this was before the advent of cheap foreign holidays badly damaged the UK's home holiday market. Old picture postcards show a place humming with throngs of people, and a wealth of attractions including several theatres, a tower to rival Blackpool's, a fair and two piers - of all this, just one theatre remains, the Floral Pavilion, happily retaining its quaint name despite a recent complete rebuild. It has a wave-like front structure replacing the uninspired 1970's building, though I am sad to see the wall behind it from which I tore down and stole a Merseycats poster in 1996 has been demolished. Equally sad that I no longer have the poster too, lost in the chaos of several house moves over the years. The piers have disappeared without trace, finally dismantled in 1978. Whole blocks of Victorian shops have vanished and been replaced by seafront apartments, many with enclosed balconies facing the waterfront, though it is rare to see anyone in them, although I suppose the view of an ever increasing pile of scrap metal on the opposite shore is less than compelling viewing. However there is frequent river traffic entering and leaving the container port also situated there, and the immense red cranes have a certain statuesque majesty.
The boldly-designed art deco amusement arcade (rendered "amusments") still remains looking out stoically as it has done since the 1930's, sheltering a swathe of cheap food outlets. This row of shops is famously pictured in some of Martin Parr's notorious "Last Resort"photographs from the 1980's, with its overheated and underdressed families doing their best to enjoy a day out, beseiged by mountains of litter. One picture is taken from a viewpoint behind the counter of an ice cream shop, where the assistant displays an expression equal parts boredom, resentment and exhaustion, a fine contrast against the multitude of eager and sunburnt customers she so clearly does not want to face.
There are many fine houses in New Brighton, some dating back to the earliest days when its speculative development was intended to attract wealthy patrons - particularly pleasing feature is the topping of many corner aspects with small turrets or spires, which gives a whimsical appearance.
Walking along the promenade at dusk, when the light begins to fade and the bright dazzle of Liverpool comes to life across the water, we see several fishermen gathering at the edge of the low tide. The sun is setting behind us in the west, quietly and in a haze of silvery greys, with none of the splendid peach and gold reflections we have seen before. A white cat runs across the roadway, like a swift ghost, to hunt in the long grass where the Pleasure Grounds once stood. And somewhere, the long forgotten orchestra of the Tower Ballroom is playing "Pluie de Diamants"....
Pennant Melangell Part 2
It was over 25 years later that I was able to return to Pennant Melangell, on one of those strange static post - Christmas days before the arrival of the New Year, a bleak and frosty day with white skies threatening snow but which happily does not arrive.
The rebuilt shrine of St. Melangell stands within the church looking for all the world like a small house, its' steeply pitched "roof" supported on rounded arches, and incorporating many stones from the original shrine, which had found their way into walls over the years. Along the edges of the gable are attractive decorative features which remind me of drooping angels' wings, I believe they are called crockets, which add a nice delicate contrast to the solidity of the structure.
Many prayer cards lie on the stone floor beneath, heartfelt pleas for the intercession of St. Melangell in difficult times, illnesses beyond help of the current capabilities of conventional medicine, emotional crises, so many problems for which there seems no cure. They point to a longing, often undefined, for a connection to powers unseen, and a knowledge so often denied in today's world, that there is something beyond ourselves, whatever different names people choose to call it. I hope that at least some of those requests were answered, and that the persons who left them found some sense of spiritual equilibrium in this peaceful place.
To see that a few of these cards were printed with an image of St. Melangell created by myself several years ago made me feel so pleased, as I had sent the picture to the churches website for no other reason than I thought it might please someone to see it. The story of this particular saint has grown into something other than the tale of a celtic holy woman so aflame with Christian fervour that she was prepared to defy her parents by fleeing from an arranged marriage and seeking a solitary life hundreds of miles away from her Irish roots. Some of what is written about her owes more to a mixture of fairy tale and folklore, and often writes out the very root of her existence here in this place. I suppose it is in some ways understandable, a free-spirited young woman with an apparently magical power over wild creatures turns her back on a life appointed by others and lives at one with nature, in beautiful surroundings : and it resonates well with today's desires to escape the pressures of the 21st century and live more simply, but unfortunately it ignores the immense faith which compelled her to come here, the single-minded determination it took, and the strength of character needed to follow her chosen spiritual path. To picture her simply as a pretty girl caring for woodland animals is missing out the fundamental issues in her story, and a great shame, because she is so much more than that.
It is, however, profoundly moving to know that even now, her assistance is still sought, in this very remote place, and over 1400 years since her death.
Stoke on Trent, as was, as is . . .
Stoke on Trent is not what it used to be ; once the proudest and largest manufacturer of ceramics in the UK, its glory days are long over, with little remaining production, and the forlorn remnants of pottery factories ("potbanks") being flattened weekly in order to build yet more shops and offices ; shops for people with money and aspirations, and offices that cannot employ people used to hard manual labour.
Handsome 18th and 19th century buildings, now devoid of their original function, stand sadly neglected and awaiting demolition all over the area. The communities of close knit terraced streets surrounding them have been gone for many years, leaving perhaps here and there a corner pub stranded in the opened up space, looking oddly adrift and isolated once removed from the surroundings which gave it meaning and purpose. I could show you many such scenes within a stone's throw of my birthplace, the streets named after 19th century politicians and royalty by Victorian entrepreneurs......Gladstone Street, Cobden Street, Leopold Street....but these are streets with no houses, their inhabitants long dispersed, and the community they were once part of destroyed.
If you so much as scratch the surface of the ground around here, you will find it to be made up of countless fragments of waste pottery, crushed more or less finely and used as landfill. The local clay based soil glues them together in a cohesive mass, as a permanent record of what has turned out to be an impermanent industry and way of life, a three dimensional collage of shattered bricks, smashed plates and cups and other ware, enough to host ten thousand banquets a ten thousand times over......decorated shards of pottery of all kinds and colours, from rough earthenware to the most delicate china, some still glittering with glaze or soiled with mud, matt biscuit ware obviously rejected at an early stage in the process....a microcosm of artistic and industrial development over the last 200 years.
We walk on it daily without a second thought for where it came from, whose hands have created it, or even how it ended up beneath our careless feet.
Clifford T. Ward and the summer of 1973
I have often wondered why the English singer and songwriter Clifford T. Ward has not been given the semi-mystical retrospective adulation that has gathered around the life and legacy of Nick Drake. They share much by way of tragic early death, lack of greater recognition during their lifetimes, and an aversion to live performances and self promotion, yet both leave behind a canon of music containing some of the most beautiful songs ever written in the English language. They are united by a specific yet intangible quality of poetical atmosphere, sometimes of longing, loss and melancholy, at other times the joy of love, yet there is a thread running through them which I am at a loss to define. All I know is that it is there.
Clifford T. Ward died in 2001 at the far too early age of 57. He is frozen forever in my mind as he is pictured on the cover of the album "Escalator", a portrait looking out at some distant unspecified point, long hair drifting in the breeze ; behind him there is patchwork of fields spread out beneath a grey and cloudy sky, suggesting the English countryside and typical rainy weather. It's an artwork with a faint sense of unease, reflected in the restricted palette of muted greens and greys and the enigmatic expression of someone looking for something they are not quite sure about, yet I find something compelling about the composition as a whole. The layers of meaning and memory that I have projected upon it over the years have made it into something deeply personal.(The artist's signature reads (in part) "Petagno" - I'm guessing, although I may well be wrong, that this is Joe Petagno, cover artist and illustrator perhaps most famous for the iconic Motorhead skull-like image, whose work is a million miles from this pastoral scene.)
I remember well the summer of 1973, when Clifford T. Ward's single entitled "Gaye" was released and became a hit, played often on the radio, and reducing us emotional schoolgirls to tears from the very first bars of the intro. The yearning lyrics and sense of beseeching in the vocals struck a heartfelt chord with young women newly freed from the strictures of exams, uniforms and grammar school pettiness - yet in reality we were little more than overgrown girls with limited knowledge or comprehension of life outside the classroom. Our heads were filled with lyrical dreams, soon revealed to be at odds with the harsh and drab existence of much of the 70's ; we wanted sensitive and romantic boyfriends, preferably with long hair and a guitar, in the mould of Cat Stevens, James Taylor and of course Clifford himself, all of whom knew about the emotional power of words and the ability to weave dreams with them. Perhaps even David Essex for the more daring. But of course, youths such as these remained much the stuff of dreams, while of those with greasy hair, wandering hands and no knowledge of poetry or gentle music, there were more than enough to go round, sadly.
The summer of "Gaye", I went to Tintern Abbey with a friend, how we could have got to such a remote an unfamiliar place now escapes my mind, but we were full of Wordsworth and wild imaginations that could only find a correspondence in ancient lofty ruins imbued with centuries of history. Somehow the song and the place have become melded together in my memory, summer skies and steep green valley sides, temporary home to two girls far from home and in search of somewhere that could reflect and magnify their dreamy unformed romantic aspirations. It was a last lost summer of innocence.
"......And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting sun..."
William Wordsworth wrote these lines some 175 years before our visit, in the same balmy July month to the same location.