I enter a Land of Saints, and find a shattered cathedral. I see the relics of a famous abbot, meet a lady in Cardigan who tells me of St.Brynach, and a clergyman near Plinlimmon who tells me of St. Curig – I visit the death-scene of a king, the shrine of a princess and the haunt of a Roman ghost.
Wales is a land of saints. They are everywhere; names of which you have never heard, yet each woven about with its own particular legend, and you move through as elfin land of romance, with never a place but adventure or folk-lore come dancing out of the bygone days.
I entered Wales by way of the Severn Tunnel, and a neat little Austin bore me out of Newport to the straggling village of Caerwent. In the half-light of evening I stood outside the church, waiting for the bus to Chepstow, with the ripple of children`s laughter stealing suddenly from behind the scattered houses and the phantom lights of cars shining for a moment before they took the by-pass road on the western side.
Here came once by the Roman road the priest whom Alban sheltered to find martyrdom himself at the hands of a pagan mob. And later, when the Saxons were ruling in England, a certain Cadoc was baptized in this place by a holy man who had sought out his father, the chieftain, to complain of the theft of his one milch cow. Afterwards Cadoc became a hermit under the influence of the disciples of Ninian, the British missionary whose settlement was in New Galloway. One day, when hungry and dispirited he sat in his lonely cell, there came a scratching and a squeaking and up on his table hopped a little white mouse with a grain of wheat to lay at the saint`s elbow. But he took no heed, and presently came the mouse again and again until five golden grains lay in a row. At last Cadoc`s curiosity was aroused and, finding the mouse`s hole, he discovered that it led into a cellar, and the cellar was full of wheat. A boar showed him where to build his monastery, leaping before him through the wood, and at each place where the beast landed the saint erected one of the monastic buildings. On another occasion deer came from the woods to offer their necks to the harness of his plough. They say that he died in Northamptonshire, murdered by brigands.
Very pretty, you murmur, but of course it is only a fairy tale. But twilight is the fairy hour; a crescent moon is riding in the sky, and long, slim shadows are creeping over Caerwent green. So let me tell you another tale: the story of Bran the Blessed.
Long, long ago, when the Roman rule was young and the camp of the legion at Caerleon newly built, Caerwent was the chief settlement of a British tribe called the Silures, and the Silures were freedom-loving and independent. Rome conquered them in 51 A. D., and, to keep the peace they seized Caradoc the Chief, his wife and children, and packed them off to Rome. Here Caradoc so impressed Claudius with his proud and manly bearing that the emperor allowed him and his family to live as free citizens.
Meantime, in Wales, the Roman general rubbed his hands, thought that at last he had drawn the sting of the Silures, and recalled all but a skeleton guard. He did not know the spirit of the Briton, for no sooner had the legion been reduced than a second rising occurred, and he had to march east again to suppress it. This time he took hostages, among whom was Caradoc`s father, an old man named Bran. When Bran joined the family in Rome he found everyone quite settled and happy, for in the interval Caradoc`s daughter had fallen in love with a soldier, a Christian named Pudens, whose parents, wealthy people with a house in the city, were friends of St. Paul. Sometimes Paul came to their house and held meetings and services there; sometimes Peter came and celebrated the Holy Communion. So Caradoc`s daughter married Private Pudens and herself became a Christian. At Baptism she took the name of Claudia as a gesture of gratitude to the emperor who had treated her father so magnanimously.
Now, young Pudens had a poetical friend named Martial. Martial was a pagan and many of the verses which he wrote would today get him into trouble with the censor, but he came to the wedding and presented the happy couple with an ode especially composed for the occasion. One verse began, `My Pudens with the stranger Claudia wed`; and another, `From painted Britons how was Claudia born`. But Martial was not the only person to immortalize the pair in print, for Paul, writing to Timothy in distant Ephesus, added a postscript: `Eubulus saluteth thee, and Pudens, and Linus, and Claudia`. This was written some years after the wedding, for Linus was their son; another son was called Timothy. Both the boys were ordained; Linus succeeded Peter as Bishop of Rome, and Timothy returned to Britain with Grandfather Bran to preach the Faith. When persecution raged in Rome their sister, Priscilla, gave shelter to the Christians, and in 145 A. D., a church was attached to their house and dedicated for worship. Today a modern church occupies the site, called Pudenziana, and in Rome they will point to it and tell you it is `the Cradle of the Western Church`.
That is the story, all the facts fitting together very neatly, but I am afraid it, too, is only legend. It is hardly possible that Caradoc would have been the accepted chieftain of his tribe when his father, Bran, was alive and able-bodied; it is very unlikely that the Roman Christians would have allowed a new convert to take at Baptism the name of a pagan emperor; it is most probable that a Christian gentleman would have been on intimate terms with a pagan poet like Martial whose verses were often, to say the least of it, coarse and crude, or that the pagan would have celebrated the Christian wedding with an ode. And the name Pudens was as common in the Rome of St. Paul as is David Jones in the Bangor of today, so that it is extremely improbable that the Pudens of Martial had anything to do with the Pudens of the Epistle to Timothy. In fact, the whole story is a rather second-rate attempt to prove that Christianity was given to Britain by the pope, when the truth is that it came independently from France and Ireland. Yet I am sorry the story is a fabrication; it fits together so neatly.
All that can be told of the introduction of Christianity into Wales is that most probably it first seeped in from England in the second century, (there was no England or Wales then, the country was called Britain), and that Chrysostum could write two hundred years later that `even the British Isles have felt the power of the Word and may be heard discussing Scriptures with differing voices, but not with differing belief`. No doubt Suetonius dealt the death-blow to British paganism when he proved that the prayers and curses of the Druids had no power to harm him or to protect the native people.
A cheerful gentleman, driving a small car, took me out of the mean houses of Newport to Caerleon. We drove up a long, wooded valley; on the northern hill a square church tower stood boldly against the sky, like a frozen sentry watching for the approach of marauding Saxons, and there was a wide, grey bridge across the lazy waters of the Usk.
Once there was a flourishing Roman city here, so large and populous that it was said to have occupied a width of nine miles/14.8km; the Romans called it Isca, from which the river derives its name and from which also comes our word Whisky. Isca, literally translated, means `water`, hardly a compliment to the modern spirit.
I crossed a field by a muddy, winding path, and over a stile came upon the remains of Isca`s military camp, an amphitheatre of worn stones cushioned with grass and weeds and flanked on one side by a length of the mouldering wall which once enclosed a splendid city. But of the barracks, baths, inns, and workshops practically nothing now remains. The glory of Isca is departed.
Two soldiers sat, smoking, under the hedge where two thousand years ago other soldiers of another empire may also have sat, polishing their breast-plates and dicing. Long after the Romans had retired the nobility of Caerleon remained, so that even in 1188 A. D., it could be described as `a city handsomely built of masonry` with `hot baths, relics of temples and palaces with gilded roofs`. And once there was pageantry upon the grey waters of the river, and there came gay-painted barges, fluttering with noble flags and banners, and an old, old man led a stripling-lad to his coronation. For Arthur at the age of fifteen was crowned at Caerleon by Merlin, his wizard.
There is a queer, green mound near the scanty remains of the Roman baths, and they will tell you that it covers the council hall where the king and his knights still sit about their round table, and in times of British`s trails Arthur will ride forth again, a phantom warrior upon a mighty charger, seen dimly in the shadows of the woods, the great sword Escabar held ready in his hand, as once he rode to Baden Hill and beat back the alien Saxon from the west.
Among the kinsmen of Arthur, or Artorius as he was properly called, for he was a Roman, was a cousin named IItud who lives a wild life of lawlessness and rapine. But one day as he rode out with his companions to prosecute some crime IItud was horrified to see the earth open and all his fellow brigands swallowed up. From that moment he decided to forego his evil ways and, separating himself form his wife, he became a humble anchorite and occupied his time digging ditches for the draining of the marshlands.
Another relation of Arthur, on joining the company of his knights, demanded that the king should cut his hair as a sign that henceforth he was `the king`s man`. In the early centuries the Celtic monks shaved the front of their heads, allowing the hair to grow long behind, and this gave rise to an irritating dispute with the Saxon Christians whose monks followed the Latin custom of cutting their hair short and shaving a circle on the top of the head had for him a deep significance and he did not easily surrender the ancient symbol; it was a sign of willing servitude, showing that he was `the king`s man`, but now the king was Christ.
Another custom by which the Celtic Church differed from the Saxon was the manner in which they chose their saints. The Saxon, like the Roman, chose his saints for their merits; but the Celtic saints inherited the title and it did not indicate particular holiness of life or character. The saint was born of a saint-family, for his church was a tribal church and there was little room for individuality. For this reason you will constantly find that the saints whose names are scattered in such profusion over Wales were closely related to one another, and the positions of abbot and bishop belonged by inheritance to select families. So for instance, the first bishop of LIandaff, Dubricus, was cousin to Teilo, his successor, who, in turn, was followed by his nephew. The old Irish word for `saint` is `Merthyr`, and towns like Merthyr Tydvil were originally the settlements of a saint-family; the word has no connection with the English `martyr` with which ignorant historians sometimes confuse it.
When the Roman city was first excavated at Caerleon a stone was found inscribed with the name of Caius Valerius, a native of Lyons, and bore a date in the second century. Here is a clue to one manner in which Christianity penetrated into Wales, for in the second-century Lyons there existed a strong Christian community under Bishop Irenaeus, and others from there beside this soldier, came to Wales, among whom may well have been some who had received Baptism in Gaul.
As I leaned on the bridge, dreaming of the forgotten, magnificence of Caerloen, the brave march of the legions through the illustrious streets, the old splendour of the boy-king whose knights gave England courtesy and grace of gentle manners, a soldier touched my arm and asked if I could spare him a cigarette. We talked there for a while, blowing the blue smoke into the still evening air, with the quiet music of the river down below. He complained bitterly of the dullness of Caerleon – even the pub, he said, was out of beer! Yet once there was gaiety here, the brilliant pageantry of knightly splendour, the palaces whose roofs shone golden in the sun. Now Caerleon is quiet and rustic, like an old man brooding on the memories of youth, crouching despondently between the silent hills and waiting the deliberate advance of industrial Newport marching ruthlessly up the wooded valley of the Usk to bury the last remnants of the grandeur that has died.
Wales, so called from the Saxon `Wealas`, meaning `foreigner`, was the land of the Gaels, a people whose inborn gentleness is echoed still in the haunting music of their songs, but by nature reckless and impetuous, incapable of organizing on a grand scale. When the Gaels surrendered Druidism for Christianity they underwent only partial conversion; it was the old paganism with a new veneer, and the missionary was only another tribal wizard who had proved himself more powerful than the Druid. Stones used in pagan worship were given the addition of a Christian symbol; wells haunted by pixies and water-sprites were merely rededicated to a saint. The first monasteries were, in actually, religious tribes, communities of families, and only later were they confined to men.
Wales was not a nation, but a collection of tribes, and the first missionaries were attached only to a single tribe; there was no movement towards a united Church, and the Faith was spread by the example of Christian lives and Christian settlements, so that preaching took only a secondary place. The earliest churches were named after the founders upon whose land they stood, and since the title `saint` was no guarantee of personal holiness, the Gaels knew nothing of relics or of prayers to saints. When the papacy at last conquered the Welsh Church in the twelfth century it did so by taking sides in tribal disputes and finally by making a purely tribal saint named David into a national saint, to which eminence he has not even the most slender title, and inventing legends of his having been the metropolitan of Wales when, in truth, he may never have been a bishop at all, but a tribal abbot, which counted in his day for a great deal more.
The tribal settlements were called Llan, so that Llandudno was the settlement of St. Tudno`s community, and the out-crop churches which sprang from the central Llan and were under its government, bore the title Bettows, as in Bettws-y-coed. The Eglwys was a later, non-monastic and independent church.
The Gaels were never absorbed by the Romans, but maintained a sturdy independence, though when the Saxons drove the Britons before them it was to the country of the Gaels that they fled, and, despising the native people, gradually gained sway over them. For centuries the native Britons were cut off from Saxon England. The victory of Caewlin, king of Wessex, at Deorham, near Bristol, in 577 A. D., isolated Cornwall and South Wales, and Ethelfrid`s victory at Chester in 613 A. D., cut off North Wales and Cumberland. In the eighth century Offa, King of Mercia, marked the boundary with a dyke and any Welshman daring to cross it was mutilated, if not killed. Thus, the Welsh Church developed beyond the influence of Canterbury, and when the method of calculating the date of Easter was revised by the pope in 549 A. D., the Welsh continued, like the Scots, to use the old calculation, refusing to change at the command of Augustine when he made his vain attempt to unite the Churches of Saxon and Celt. Further, the Welsh Church alone of all the Churches of Europe has ever successfully withstood the imposition of enforced clerical celibacy.
This independent spirit was accentuated by the arrival of fleeing British Christians who brought with them a bitter hatred for their Anglo-Saxon conquerors. A Saxon Christian, crossing the border, might only be accepted by the Welsh Church after forty days` penance, and they would not eat with them nor use his plates and cups without they had first been cleansed. So strong was this hostility that an abbot hearing on one occasion a man call his hunting dog in the Saxon tongue, decided immediately to move his monastery from the tainted spot, and the same gentleman is said to have planted an oak over his father`s grave which brought death to any Saxon resting in its shade.
It was said of the foundation of the Faith that while Rome planted, the Scot watered and the Briton did nothing, but if one remembers the cruelty and brutality of the Saxon invasion it is hardly to be expected that the Briton would easily welcome the conqueror into his Church, while Augustine`s demand they should receive him as their archbishop merely infuriated them, representing, as he did, this aggressive invader and not yet having so much as proved the stability of his missionary work. Those to whom he came were the original and native Christians of the land, and such arrogance on the part of a foreign missionary was foredoomed to indignant rejection. Thus, the Welsh Church developed along independent lines, a Christianity cemented upon an already existing tribal system, with the abbot, as head of the monastic family, taking precedence over the bishop whose function it was to ordain only at the abbot`s command.
So many of the Celtic saints were born out of wedlock that illegitimacy appears almost to have been a qualification for sainthood. Perhaps it was so. The Celt never regarded a marriage ceremony as vital, but he attached great importance to the first-born son and, later, great importance also to virginity. The illegitimate son was not only the first-born, but he was conceived often against his mother`s will. Ninian was born of an assault upon his mother; so was David. In both cases the mother remains ideally and by intention a virgin, and virginity is still glorified in the conception of a child.
It seems, too, that the presentation of a bell may have been a part of their ordination rite; so many of the saints of the Gaels possessed bells – Patrick, Columba, Ninian, Kentigern, David and others beside, Aeddan, the disciple of David, on his journey to Ireland was followed by an angel bringing him his `dear little bell` which he had left behind, and it is said of Columba that he had what must surely have been an exasperating habit of rising in the night and ringing his bell to summon the brethren to an impromptu service in the church. These bells were made square, from sheets of metal fastened with rivets, and the makers were held in high esteem on account of their craft.
In the sixth century Gildas the historian attacked the Welsh princes for their corruption and vices and the clergy for their laxity and indifference; even David did not escape the fire of his indignation, but was condemned for upholding a monastic system which bred pride rather than charity because of its rigorous standards. Yet it is David`s monastery that there comes the quaint story of Scuthin the monk whose chastity was so far above reproach that every night he shared his bed with two virgins of surpassing beauty without committing any impropriety.
Gildas became so unpopular through his writings, which certainly were exaggerated in their accusation, that he emigrated to Brittany and no church in Wales was ever dedicated to him.
But not only the saint was a power in primitive Wales; the bard who rendered the tales of his land in verse and whose harp decorates the Royal Standard wielded a wide influence too. One such bard attended the funeral of a saint and was composing his lyric of praise when a flood burst over the church; higher and higher rose the flood and higher and higher climbed the bard still imperturbably composing, until nothing remained but a watery landscape and the bard, composing yet, perched alone on the church`s roof.
Meanwhile, other Britons, isolated in the Cornish peninsula were maintaining the Faith in that wild, rock-bound country, and from there comes the tragic story of Ursula, daughter of Dionoc, King of Cornwall. She was sent by her father, with eleven companions, to visit a British prince who had followed the Emperor Maximus to Gaul, but mistook her way and sailed up the Rhine to Cologne where savage Teutons murdered her. An ancient scribe, misreading the Latin abbreviation XI M.V., gave Ursula eleven thousand companions, when the correct translation is `eleven martyr virgins`.
All next morning good fortune favoured me. Leaving Chepstow early in the morning I hitched a lorry and we thundering through Newport before the town was properly awake and on to Cardiff. At Cardiff one can travel by tram across the city for only a penny; there are no tickets, for you drop your coin into a slotted box at the entrance. Under the shadow of the castle walls I caught a `bus to Llandaff.
The cathedral stands on a slope between the high road and the river. Early in the war a land-mine exploded beside it and wrecked the greater part of the building, so that it appears today very much as it must have done a hundred years ago when owing to lack of money, it had fallen into great disrepair. At the dissolution of the monasteries Henry VIII robbed the cathedral of all its revenues but fifty pounds a year. Now, once more, it stands roofless, the unglazed windows opening on to piles of rubble strewn about the nave, but the east end has been restored for worship and there are slender, coloured pillars glimpsed through the sturdiness of a Norman arch.
One of the clergy took me into the bombed portion and showed me the tomb of St. Dubricius, or Dyfrig, as he is called in Wales, all but hidden under piled hassocks, with a great iron figure which was blown from the roof, lying on top.
Dubricius shares with Merlin the honour of having crowned King Arthur, who repaid him by appointing him Bishop of Caerleon, Bishop Germinus of Auxerre performing the act of consecration. In 470 A. D., he became Bishop of Llandaff and is credited with the foundation of the cathedral. Twenty years later he is said to have become Archbishop of Caerleon, though this is more than doubtful since at that time Wales had no archbishop. When Arthur fought and vanquished the invading Saxons at Badon Hill Dubricius rode out with the king`s forces and exhorted them in the battle. Afterwards he withdrew to the Isle of Bardsey where he lived and died as a hermit, and there his bones lay until the twelfth century when they were translated to Llandaff.
Another tradition, and perhaps a more reliable one, makes Teilo, who was related both to Dubricius and to David, the founder of the cathedral in the sixth century. He was born at Tenby and had a school at Llandaff. With David, he belonged to a rigorous monastic order called the Watermen, and there is a quaint legend to explain the origin of the name.
A poor man came to Teilo in much distress because he was in great poverty and had a large family to which a new addition arrived every year. Teilo advised him not to cohabit with his wife, and for seven years the man obeyed him. But at the end of that time his self-control suffered a defeat, with the result that his wife bore him seven sons at one time. Teilo met the father carrying the babies to the river with the intention of drowning them, and taking pity on them, rescued them from the watery grave and himself adopted them. When they were grown up he instructed them in the monastic life and they became the nucleus of the community of the Watermen. Each day seven fish would be found on a rock near the river for their food, and when they received a visit from Teilo there were always eight.
Teilo accompanied David on his pilgrimage of Jerusalem, and became Bishop of Llandaff in 575 A. D. His tomb, which is of thirteenth-century workmanship, is in the south wall of the Lady Chapel, and his figure guards the great west doors. On the opposite side of the Chapel is the tomb of a bishop whose recumbent effigy lies below a stone canopy in which is carved above him, so that he will see it on opening his eyes, a tiny figure of the Resurrection.
As we left the cathedral a woman opened the door and said shyly, “May we come in?”
“This, madam,” said the clergyman, “is the only true public house in Llandaff, for everyone and anyone is allowed in it without charge.”
We walked back towards the road, and he pointed out the heads of the kings which are carved along the south wall.
“There was a local superstition,” he said, “that the throne would fall when we reached the last block. For a very short while it seemed that the prophecy might come true.”
The last block is carved with the uncrowned head of Edward VIII.
A gentleman drove me out of Llandaff to the roundabout on the main road, and here I hitched an army van which took me to the outskirts of Swansea, through the grey and unattractive streets of Neath which is exactly what every English imagines a South Wales town to be; a few miserable cows were being auctioned in the cattle market as we passed. Outside Swansea there was a black forest of tall chimneys obscuring the September sky with belching, gritty smoke. A lorry carried me into the city, and when I told the driver that I was going to Llanmadoc he offered to take me out to Skelly where the road turns off to the Gower Peninsula.
“I thought I`d have to look at Swansea first,” I shouted above the clash and clatter of his engine which made conversation almost impossible, and he bellowed back at me, “The centre of the town, you say, but it is bombed – yes – bombed flat, it is. Aye, to be sure. You be four years too late, I`m thinking.”
Swansea was the first city in Great Britain to experience a big `blitz` by the German `planes.
From Skelly a delighted old farmer took me on to the Gower Peninsula in his dilapidated car and put me down beside the moorland road at the Three-finger Post. Swansea might have been a thousand miles away instead of five or six / 8-9.6km, for all around were green, expansive moors where groups of ponies grazed among the ferns, and a brisk wind laden with the smell of sea and the rich scent of heather. Under a brilliant sun a yellow, rough-hewn road cut through the ferns and gorse, stretching towards the haze of a horizon marred by neither house not farmstead, and there was no sound but the plaintive cry of a gull and the wind soughing across a wilderness of gorse.
I walked on for a couple of miles/km, and then a car came crawling like a shiny beetle out of the distant valley and took me to within a few miles/km of my destination. My way led me now through twisting lanes where high hedges cut off the view of moor and sea and the wide sweep of Bury Bay. In a dip of the road I came suddenly upon the grey church of Cheriton, its tower rising from the centre of the building, set between nave and chancel like the old church of Jarrow, and then there were distant views of hills again, and across the quiet waters of the bay, the smoking chimneys of industrial Llanelly.
In the evening I climbed the hill behind Llanmadoc village, fighting my way to the summit through ferns that were often shoulder high, and at the top found an unhindered view of flat, square fields stretching towards Rhossili, and a grey-blue sea, flecked with white foam, into which jutted a dark rock, grim and sinister, as though especially designed to throw into relief the colours of moorland, sea and golden sand. And there was a lonely crow, sharp black against the cloudless sky.
Afterwards I stood talking to a villager on the green above the church. A woman passed, driving a flock of geese, and a shepherd whistled his dog, plodding homeward through the twilight. One by one lights gleamed behind the curtains of the cottage windows, and a first star shone prematurely in the sky.
The villager said, “We don`t call the Gower Wales, and you`ll hear no Welsh spoken here. We call it Little England, for we`re of Flemish stock, and we drove the Welsh out centuries ago.
There was a young man laden with a haversack waiting about on the green next morning when I set out again.
“We`ve just missed the `bus,” he informed me, dejectedly.
“You`ve a hope. This road`s a dead-end, so there`s no through traffic. Did you come out across the moors from Swansea?”
“I did, and I hitched it.”
“Good heavens!” He seemed astonished. “You had some luck.”
Suddenly there came the sound of the revving of a motor engine from behind the closed gates of a yard on the other side of the road.
I said, “If I`m not mistaken, that`s going to be my hitch.
I crossed and looked over the gates. Inside was an empty coal lorry, with a pile of sacks and a pair of scales standing in several inches/cm of black dust. The driver`s mate was approaching the gates and I opened them for him.
“Could you give me a lift?” I asked him.
“Where are you going?”
“So am I,” I said.
The lorry tore through the lanes at break-neck speed, and we had to cling on, with eyes tightly closed, for coal-dust whirled about us and filled our lungs if we attempted conversation. When we jumped off at Gowerton I felt that I should never be clean again.
I walked along by the side of the bay, leaving my companion to catch the `bus into Swansea, and at the next village I decided to wait for the `bus to Llanelly; a woman armed with a shopping basket assured me that it would arrive within the next few minutes. Meantime, there was an occasional car passing up the street, so I explained to her that I was going to hitch one if I could, and as it is illegal for a motorist to give a lift to anyone standing at a `bus stop, I would have to run a few paces up the up the road whenever a car or lorry appeared around the corner. The first driver made wild and incomprehensible signs and turned down the next side-road; the next stopped to explain that he was only going a hundred yards/metres on. With each now possibility the little Welsh woman became more exited, and when other women, armed likewise with shopping baskets, joined the queue she explained loudly to then what I was endeavouring to do. I became the embarrassed centre of an increasing audience, but at last, after my sixth vain attempt, I returned to the queue and made a public announcement that I was hitching no more. A murmur of disappointment, almost of indignation, arose from the shoppers.
“It`s a shame,” said one woman.
“Save you fivepence, it will surely.”
From around the bend came the sound of a motor engine. A perceptible thrill ran down the queue and I half expected to hurl themselves upon the approaching motorist, brandishing baskets of every shape and size, with wild and savage cries, and force the driver to take me with him. There came the noise of gears, and the vehicle lumbered round the corner. I breathed again it was the `bus.
The little Welsh woman sat beside me and told me of her son in the Forces. On her breast was pinned a brooch-locket which she opened to show, within, his tiny portrait. He seemed very young.
“It`s a terrible war, it is surely,” she said. “I lost my eldest at Dunkirk – yes – and a fine boy as ever you`d meet, he was. And now this one in France and him been in Italy too. But, praise God, he`d been kept safe up till now, so he has, and we mustn`t grumble, for – goodness! – there are others the same, are there not?”
She snapped the little gilt lid over the photograph and sat staring out of the window. Her cheeks were wet with tears.
I walked out of Llanelly as the last children ran belatedly to school. The end wall of a house was painted with crude and strident letters which read CHRIST DIED FOR THE UNGODLY – YOU! And I thought how alien is the harsh, inhuman Calvinism of Welsh Noncomformity to a people who are, in reality, both kindly and deeply sentimental. Yet they have flung themselves into the severe embraces of this hell-fire doctrine because the Church must surely have failed to understand them, not learning from history how they have always rebelled from any system of government, ecclesiastical or secular, which takes no thought for the ancient tribalism of their ancestors, a tribalism which still stirs in their blood and unconsciously dominates them. I suspect that even today Wales is not a nation at all and that the creed of Welsh Nationalism makes no real appeal to the average native. Wales remains a collection of separate tribes, and the Pembrokeshire man always feel a stranger in Carnarvonshire.
I travelled by lorry to St. Clears, through placid rolling country, skirting the town of Carmarthen which lay, a square, peaceful patch of grey, among low and slumberous hills. From St. Clears I walked up the steep hill along the road towards Whitland and for an hour saw no one but an ancient tramp crouched under a hedge and a lithe, brown weasel which darted from the ditch a few feet ahead of me, paused, like a coiled spring, to regard me, then whirled about and streaked into the grass again.
A car which I had previously hitched, now took me into Northam, the driver explaining that he had his men`s wages to deliver and never gave lifts when he had money aboard, for which I did not blame him; and a second car carried me from Northam to Haverfordwest in an unheralded cloud-burst of rain. I walked through the deserted street, for everyone was sheltering, and took up my position in a doorway on the farther side of the town, but I had to hitch for nearly an hour before I obtained a car. My driver was carrying supplies of some sort to an aerodome on the headland.
The road mounted steadily until we were speeding over open moorland, then suddenly, past Roche, it sped downwards towards the sea and shot straight as an arrow for the shore. My driver braked at the bottom of the hill.
“This,” he said, “is one of the loveliest views in South Wales.”
Before us lay St. Bride`s Bay, a tremendous sweep of blue, unruffled sea, backed by the grey harbour of Newgale, with the dim hummocks of Ramsey and Skomer, like outposts sentinels, at either end of the encircled cliffs. The rain had stopped now and the first rays of a weak sun were striking through the mist of clouds, dappling the wide waters with pale gold, and the gulls seemed brilliant white against the shaded backcloth of the sky. It was a scene of simple majesty, as unhampered by unnecessary detail as hauntingly mysterious as a Whistler painting. One felt it was the sea-road to the end of the world. I wondered if Patrick had ever stood here, gazing across those calm waters, as I did now, his thoughts in the country of his adoption where his disciples were to bring Faith to Bride – or Bridget – who herself sewed the saint`s winding-sheet and prophesied the birth of St. Columba. Irishmen call Bride affectionately `the Mary of the Gaels` and tell the fierce story of how wild dogs devoured the bishop who was attached to her monastery, because he disobeyed her.
The birthplace of Patrick is unknown, and he is claimed for Dumbarton, near Glasgow, and for a village which once stood on the banks of the Severn. His grandfather was a Christian priest when the Romans were in power, and his father, Calpurnius, was a deacon and a village councillor who married a woman named Concessa whom he is said to have purchased in the slave market. Consessa may possibly have been a relative of the famous Martin, Bishop of Tours.
Patrick, who was also christened Sucat, meaning `war-like`, was born about the year 389 A. D., and describes himself as `rustic and unlearned`; at the age of sixteen, with many others, he was carried off by Irish pirates to the kingdom of the Nialls to whose royal house Columba was later to be born, and one Miliuce, a chieftain, purchased him. For six years, guarding his master`s sheep in the mountains, his home-sick heart was comforted by prayers, and he told in after years how he learned to pray then `in rain, in hail and in snow`.
At the age of twenty-two he escaped and fled to Wicklow, where, by a lucky chance, he found a ship bound for England and carrying a cargo of savage wolf-hounds which none of the sailors could control. Patrick was used to the brutes, for he had had the care of Miliucc`s dogs, and they agreed to take him with them. But a contrary wind drove their ship to France. For some weeks the sailors seem to have held the lad captive, perhaps in the hope of ransom, and they wandered miserably through a desolate and inhospitable countryside which had been devastated by hordes of fierce vandals marching to Italy and the beckoning wealth of Rome.
He was destined to remain in France for many years, perhaps living for a time with Martin, his uncle, but eventually finding sanctuary first with Bishop Germanus who was soon to visit St. Albans and who now gave Patrick the tonsure of the monk, and later at the monastery of Lerins in the Mediterranean which, founded in 410 A. D., was to be the nursing-mother of some of the most brilliant Christians of this and the following century. Hilary of Lerins in 445 A. D., rebuked the pope for interfering with the Gallic Church, and a hundred and fifty years later Virgilius of Lerins, while Archbishop of Arles, consecrated Augustine as the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Here now, at Lerins, Patrick found hospitality and learning, until a dream stirred his restless spirit and Ireland called him back to her.
There were Christians already in Ireland, for the Faith had been carried there by pirates from Britain and by slaves whom they had kidnapped. In 431 A. D., the pope had sent Palladius to minister to this growing Church, but either he had died there soon after his arrival, or rough and tempestuous seas had prevented him landing and he had shirked his mission. But in the following year Patrick arrived at St. David`s Head in Wales where he was determined upon founding a monastery, since geographically it lay at the centre of the Gaelic monastic movement. This an angel forbade him to attempt, for the site was reserved for David who was to be born in thirty years` time, and when Patrick showed signs of sulkiness the angel appeased him with the promise of Ireland instead.
On the other side of Ramsey Island lie the golden sands of Whitsand Bay whence Patrick sailed to challenge the heathen fires of Tara, lit each Easter eve in pagan worship, by lighting his own fire on an adjoining hill. “Put out that fire,” cried the Arch-druid to the High King of Tara, “else it will extinguish all the fires of Druidism.”
His one-time master, Miliucc, learning of the saint`s approach, burned himself alive in his house. But that most familiar story of the saint and the shamrock-leaf was heard for the first time only in the seventeenth century and must be relegated to legend.
Some years since, a tiny and ancient church was excavated above Whitsand Bay, built long ago to commemorate the place from which Ireland`s apostle sailed to the green island which ever since has held him so closely and so loyally to her heart. Irishmen will you today, in a glow of confidence, that on the Last Day it is Patrick who will judge them.
The road climbed steeply to the moors again, and there was a stiff clean wind blowing inland from the sea. The headland had a wild, forsaken aspect, unbroken by trees, and the rough road dipped and rose again between stone walls and ramparts of piled turf. St. David`s itself must be the smallest city in the world, just one grey street sloping gently to the square, with its ancient market cross, and, below, to the cathedral and the sea. There is a sense of remoteness about it which defies description and is to be felt nowhere else even though other parts of Wales are more isolated than this ancient settlement. It is somehow still vital with the presence of the saints, wrapped in a hushed atmosphere of centuries of seeking after God, and it possesses, too, a strange, calm air of completeness as though the world beyond its boundaries had become suddenly superfluous. Men have lived here for countless centuries, yet it is the Christian monks who have imprinted upon it this character of quiet completion. A man may end his journey here and be content.
Patrick is said to have had a school in this spot before David came to build Ty Gwynd, the White Monastery, a settlement of whitewashed huts around what must have been a very humble church. These were destroyed by fire, and when the Normans commenced the present cathedral they were restoring what had already been erected more than once by other builders. In David`s day men called this place the Vale of Roses from the wild Burnet rose which grows in rich profusion on the cliffs and is pictured in the diocesan arms.
In the late evening I walked along the narrow lane which leads behind the cottages to the ancient Chapel of St. Non who was David`s mother; here the saint was born, and here, too, men worshipped other gods long before he came, for the ruined chapel is the centre of a rough circle of prehistoric stones. Above it, under a hedge of pink hydrangeas, is the tiny arched well of crystal water, very cold, where once the faithful sought healing of the eyes, and still today the bottom is strewn with coins. As I turned from the chapel a rabbit leaped up almost at my feet and went springing through the blown grass, its white tail bobbing ridiculously behind. Towards the grey-line sea, streaked with the foam-white of waves which tumble on the beach, two horses cropped, heedless of my presence, and a hay-cart rumbled down the lane, set in dark silhouette against the crimson of a dying sun which seemed to be balanced precariously like a fiery ball upon the rim of purple hills.
Between St. David`s and the sea are the remains of a camp older than Roman times, possibly a pirates` fort, some say of Bwya the Druid who came to slay the saint and was punished by the death of all his cattle. Later, his wife tried to get rid of David by sending `lewd maidens` to play beside the River Alun which runs beside the ruined wall of the Bishop`s palace and was once famous for the size and tameness of its trout, but is now too small and humble to contain any trout at all. But no opposition could succeed in turning David from his purpose, and under his leadership there arose a vigorous community of Watermen, owning no property and receiving none, except for distribution to the poor, themselves drawing the plough, and obeying a strict rule by which they abstained both from meat and wine.
Once visitors asked permission to eat meat which they had brought with them on the excuse that it was only concentrated milk and grass, but afterwards they wondered if they had broken the rule of vegetarianism because their biscuits had been full of weevils. On another occasion one of the monks, named Modonnoc, journeyed to Ireland, was followed by the bees from the monastic hives; three times he returned to bring them back, but each time they followed him again, until at last David forebade them ever to return – a story which may have originated to explain the prohibition of bee-keeping, the true explanation of which was that mead, the wine of the day, was made from honey. Every evening silence was observed, and the community assembled in church for three hours of devotions during which none dare `yawn, spit or sneeze`.
A joint founder of the monastery was Aeddan who, on one occasion, coming to David to ask his recommendation of a soul-friend or confessor, was told by an angel, “It is not necessary for thee to have a soul-friend, for God loves thee, and between God and thee there shall be no middle person”; words which would have rejoiced the heart of Luther.
The church was erected on piles in the midst of the marshland, and in other years the Norman builders were constantly troubled by the insecurity of the ground, so that on more than one occasion parts of their buildings collapsed. In the present building the nave pillars lean visibly to one side.
The ancient life of David was written, from moth-eaten manuscripts recued from the wreckage left by the Danish and Scandinavian raids of previous centuries, by Rhygyvarch, the Bishop of St. David`s at the time of the Norman Conquest, a copy of those `Lament` at the destruction caused by the invaders is in the British Museum. Rhygyvarch adds to his manuscript of the `Life` the gentle hope that the angels may place him as `a tiny sheaf within the heavenly gate to behold God for ever, Who is over all, God blessed for ever`.
Within the present cathedral, in the warm, white chapel of the Blessed Trinity, the bones of David rest in an oaken coffer which lies in an old niche behind a wrought-iron grille. The altar of this chapel is built of ancient stones, and on one there is an indistinct, but unique, carving representing the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The altar stone of another chapel is said to have been brought by David from Jerusalem when he returned from his consecration.
I went from the market square down the long flight of steps called `The Thirty-nine Articles` as the bell was ringing for Evensong, and took my place in a stall where there lay an attractive Prayer-Book bound in bright red leather, with the diocesan arms embossed in black and gold, a little lady beside me leaned across, whipped away my scarlet book and hissed, “Choir!” as the procession entered; then, seeing I did not comprehend, she hissed again, “Alright, stay now,” and passed me a plain Prayer-Book which was no substitute for the one she had taken from me.
How appropriate were all the portions of that service. Throughout the week that had gone by I had heard of our military advances on the continent, the relief of Paris, bringing food and liberty to the oppressed, the capture of Brussels, promising freedom to the captive Belgium, and the first onslaught upon the invader across the borders of Holland, and now the Psalmist repeated the old reassurance, “I have myself seen the ungodly in great power. . . . They shall be rooted out at the last.” As I travelled I had heard other news, of neglected churches and cathedrals beautifully restored within recent years. at Llandaff they had shown me the design for the rebuilding of the bomb-stricken nave; at St. David`s I had heard how, within living memory, the cathedral had been as ruinous as the roofless wreckage of the bishop`s palace, and later I was to see the loveliness of Iona Cathedral which, fifty years ago, was an unusable shell, while in my own life-time I had watched the beginning of the restoration of the old-beauty and colours to the interior of the cathedral at Durham. Now, from the old Testament, came the plea of Nehemiah, the King`s cup-bearer, asking leave to rebuild the holy city of Jerusalem. Surely I, too, was living in a time of religious restoration, seeing the birth-pangs of an artistic revival in the things of God. Then came the clear voices of the choir sending upwards a last song of praise and prayer towards the gay beauty of the painted ceiling.
Before the ending of the day
Creator of the world, we pray
That Thou with wanted love would sleep
Thy watch around us while we sleep
I climbed the tower and looked out across waving cornfields to the sea which Patrick sailed to Ireland and over which came pirates to burn and loot the monastery. Below lay the long hall of the bishop`s palace, with its beautiful rose-window; the destruction began when the roof was stripped of its lead by the bishop of the Reformation to be sold to provide dowries for his five daughters. Perhaps greater vandalism had been prevented by the fortunate chance that Henry VIII`s grandfather, the Welshman Edmund Tudor, is buried in the cathedral.
When I regained the market square it was nearly dark. A blackboard, leaning against the cross, announced that to-morrow at 3 p.m. Mr Mortimer would have a small quantity of hake and cod for sale. At my lodging I found the airman, his wife and baby, who were also staying, had already begun the meagre supper which had been provided by our landlady, a woman of vinegar and flint. The conviviality of our meal was not helped by the fact that whenever I spoke the baby began to cry; we finished our bread and cheese in a silence broken only by the happy gurgling of the infant who now revelled in its unprincipled but decisive victory.
There was no bulb in my bedroom, and I was refused a candlestick. Soap and towel were also unprovided, and even sheets were absent; under the bed there was a fluffy carpet of deep dust. The landlady – wise woman! – had requested me to pay in advance, announcing immediately after I had done so that, as she never arose before nine, I would have to cook my own breakfast. For the remainder of the evening she played an asthmatic harmonium and sang Sankey choruses, while her husband, a pathetic creature, slept behind the evening paper. Her voice uncertain of the notes, echoed through the wall which divided us:
When the roll is called up wonder
I`ll be there!
When the roll is called up yonder
I`ll be there
She sounded very confident, but though I am by nature optimistic, I remembered my half-guinea and had doubts.
Next morning I was the only passenger on the early `bus. We drove very slowly, with frequent stops, and the conductress explained that the driver was looking for mushrooms which he sometimes found in the fields bordering the road. Later a crowd of schoolboys invaded us and played `conkers` vociferously in the rear seats.
Somehow I had expected Fishguard to be a dull, commercial place, instead, there was a dark and rocky bay into which three sturdy quays thrust themselves like stubby fingers, and grey, sombre waters where gulls skimmed, crying raucously. The road clung to the steep mountain side, climbing up above the bay, banked by conifers of heavy green; a low, rough wall of granite stones guarded a sheer drop into the sullen sea, and farther on there came a brilliant glimpse of Newport sands, cream surf on golden beaches and a river which tumbled from wild and rocky hills down a stern majesty of craggy mountains.
A farmer drove me into Cardigan, past sweeping views of sunlit sea, and as I walked over the bridge across the wide, clear river and through the little town, women, with dusters tied about their hair, sweeping their doorsteps, bade me good-morning.
Beyond the hill a young man stopped his car and took me on to Sarnan. He told me that I should have visited the churchyard at Nvern, where there is a bleeding yew which constantly drips queer, blood-coloured sap, and I remembered that Nennius, in his `History of the Britons,` mentioned the `wonder` that was to be seen in Cardigan, a tomb which anyone might lie beside and yet always find it exactly his own length, and if you bowed three times to it you would never know weariness again.
We stopped for a while beside a bank of brilliant purple heather, and across the green fringe of cliff and calm, sapphire sae there was a dim shape which showed faintly on the horizon through the heat-mist: Bardsey Island, grave of the chieftains and the saints, where Dubricus ended his days in solitary communion with his God. Farther to the right the headland of North Wales was visible in ghostly silhouette.
A lady drove me to Llanarth and told me of St. Brynach who once dwelt among the Prescelly Hills, she said, David passed on his way to his monastery carrying on his back a great stone cross which Brynach so admired that the saint presented it to him; it stands today in Nevern churchyard, a very fine and ancient piece of Celtic workmanship. And there is another cross near Nevern, carved in the living rock which, below, is worn smooth by the feet of countless pilgrims and which probably formed a sign-post for those who came to pay homage to David`s shrine. It was from this district that, centuries ago, forgotten men bore the stones with which they built Stonehenge, taking them by rafts to Milford Haven and then somehow bearing them across the land, an incredible feat of primitive transport.
I dined at a small, gaily-painted hotel beside the road. Round the walls were coloured prints of `The First Steeplechase on Record (1839)`, and, strange to say, a month later I discovered an exactly similar set framed in the kitchen of an Essex cottage. A lorry took me to Aberavron, a grey town lying placidly among emerald fields, overhung by encircling hills, with a small harbour and a grey, foam-flecked sea. Then a doctor drove me to Llannon where the street was decked with pink hydrangeas.
Llannon means `the settlement of St. Non`s`, David`s mother though whether she really had a nunnery here I do not know. As a girl she had determined to dedicate herself to the life of a nun, but an Irish prince named Sant assaulted her and she bore a son – David. Great with child, she hid herself one day in a church where Gildas was due to preach, but when he mounted the pulpit he could not speak at all. When Non revealed her presence Gildas prophesied that a great saint should issue from her womb. A local Druid, frightened by the fame of the unborn child, determined to slay Non, but her journey was prevented by a fierce tempest and, unwittingly, she escaped the murderer and bore her child in safety. Later, a blind man was cured with the water in which David had been baptized, and for many centuries St. Non`s well on the headland was believed to be powerful for the healing of the eyes. At Llannon, David is said to have built his first church before he settled in the Vale of Roses.
There is a long hill into Aberyswyth, with rolling hills on the far horizon, before you dip into the leafy tunnel of the lower road. Behind the promenade, the town is ugly and cramped, and I was glad to be rid of it as I walked out by Llanbadarn where Padarn, the friend of David, once built a church. An elderly lady drove me to Capel Bangor, complaining bitterly of a woman evacuee who was billeted on her and who burned her coal with a reckless disregard for rationing, and grumbled at the lack of cinemas and fish-and-chip shops.
“And she called my house a lousy spot,” she added indignantly.
The vicar drove me to Pont Erwyd and stopped his car where there was a wide and stately view of wooded valley stretching to the sea, harsh grey rocks leaping from the velvet turf of the mountains and the solemn blackness of a tarn lying coldly on a barren shelf above the green plain far below. A red squirrel scurried down a tree and loped across our path.
I had booked for the night at the Youth Hostel at Pont Erwyd, and as I turned into the village store to buy supplies for super and breakfast rain began to fall heavily and a darkened sky lay oppressively upon the lonely hills. Up a marshy path, high above the village, I found the hostel, a low, grey building with broken windows through which the wind whistled drearily. Two girls had just arrived and together we stuffed the gaps in the glass with newspaper and lit the fire as huge hailstones began to clatter down the chimney and thunder grumbled over the forsaken hills.
We walked a mile/1.6km down the road to the white-washed farmhouse to buy milk, and stayed for an hour talking with the farmer before a blazing fire which flickered like red gold upon the willow-pattern on the dresser and glowed in the polished brass of the vases either side of the mantelshelf. He spoke of his old trade, lead mining, fetching samples of the raw metal from the dresser drawer, and explained how the lode ran vertically, unlike coal, and the ore was blasted out before being separated in the water crusher. The shafts sunk sometimes to a depth of 250 feet/75.8m. The metal fetched £10 a ton at the mine, but the smelter got £25 when it left his hands. Now the industry had been killed by the import of Australian lead for which the country paid only £7 a ton.
As we walked back there was a hawk poised motionless against a cloud of murderous black, which dropped like a stone into a clump of sodden grass to seize its prey. Then the storm broke and thunder crashed, echoing through the mountains; rain, hail and wind pounded the cottage walls and swept in dark sheets across the dismal valley, bending the trees in fierce obeisance and howling with savage splendour across the wastes of gorse and wiry grass. One felt that at any moment the lightning would reveal a fierce Valkyrie, poised on her war-horse on the mountains tops, her golden hair mingling with the electric flash and her desolate war-cry answering the thunder.
Others came to the hostel in the evening, among whom was sixteen-year-old Winnie of Birmingham on a cycling holiday with her father, who walked into the kitchen and surveyed the scene in horror, hands on hips.
“Coo! ain`t it filthy?” she said; “if my mum saw this she`d give `em what-for `alf she wouldn`t.”
Within ten minutes she had found a scrubbing brush, and by night-fall table and benches were almost white. Her kettle was always on the Primus, and she delighted to provide cups of tea every twenty minutes or so for the men of the party until we declined to drink anymore. She refused to believe that any man was capable of cooking or washing up, and was very annoyed next morning when I crept down early and fried my bacon before she was awake, for she had sworn she would make breakfast for me. A great kid, Winnie!
We sat round the fire, yarning till past midnight, and Winnie`s father told us a ghost story.
“It was last war an` I was stationed outside Newcastle,” he said; “a corporal, I was, and we was on guard duty in a little wood near a churchyard – “
“An` you saw a corpse,” said Winnie.
“Now, you shut up an` let me tell it. As I was saying`, we was on guard, and presently I was woke up by the fellar as was on duty, an` he`s as white as a sheet, an` shakin` an` shiverin`, an` he says to me, he says, `Corporal, I`ve seed a ghost,` he says. But he stands there proper aeriated, an` at last I gets up an` goes to look. Outside it was dark as could be, an` the wind howling through them trees, an` the nearer we gets to the churchyard wall where he`d seen the ghost, the slower he walks – “
“Oh,” said Winnie, “don`t it make yer creep!”
“Shut up, Winnie, who`s tellin` this, you or me? Well, shut up, will yer? Where was I?”
“Alright, alright, I know. Now, shut up an`let get on with it. As we get near the wall, an` there was only faint moonlight, suddenly he clutched me arm an` he points, an` the hair on me head stands right up like the stories say it do, an` I seed the ghost – “
“Now, Winnie, how many more times ave` I got to tell you to shut up? I said I seed the ghost, an` I did an` all. White, it was, with two long arms, an`t it comes up above the wall kind o` moaning an` goes down again, an` then up it comes again an` down it goes.”
“I don`t believe you,” said Winnie.
“But I saw it, plain as a pikestaff. Up an` down, up an` down.”
“Go on !” said the unbelieving Winnie. “You never!”
“I did, I tell you. Up an` down. An` now I`ll tell you what it was. Well, at Newcastle they `ave Muhammedan Arabs, see? An` one `ad died the day before, see? An` here was his widow-woman carrying on at his grave like Muhammedan Arabs do, see? An` she had white clothes like `em do, see?”
The road past Dyffryn Castell and Plinlimmon rises steadily amongst great hills of mossy green, split by dark, volcanic rifts from which high water-falls tumble into the marshy valley. In the early morning they were shrouded in a film of mist, promising hat, and there were royal splashes of purple heather and a wide plantation of new firs so neatly laid in rows that they might have been combed by some gigantic hand. Little, small-horned cattle grazed beside the road where the smoothness of fields was scarred violently by great stones and the dark granite of protruding rocks, like the tips of buried mountains. The road was splashing with waters hurtled from great heights and the occasional harsh cry of a crow, and I walked for two hours and met only a single shepherd and a lithe, black collie, hustling a flock of timorous sheep. Then the hills gave way to a wide, billiard-table vale, and the road bridged a clear river which tossed its waters impatiently across a boulder-strewn bed; it was the baby Wye, hastening down to Monmouth, Chepstow and the Severn. The country was more wooded now, and there were six trees and a red house set boldly against the far line of the horizon. Then, a small car carried me to Llangurig, and from there the vicar gave me a lift into Llanidloes, and told me the story of his church`s patron saint.
“There was a woman named Julitta who was martyred under Diocletian,” he said, “and she left a three-year-old boy named Curig who did not long survive her. For some reason, her fame spread to Brittany, and the people there christened their children Curig after the child. So it happened that there was a young man named Curig living in Brittany in the eighth century who decided to come to Britain and found a church. He arrived at Aberystwyth and walked over Plinlimmon. You passed the place where he is said to have rested; it is called Eisteddfa-Curig.”
“I remember,” I said, “near Dyffran Castell, where George Borrow also crossed Plinlimmon. But would you mind spelling it to me?”
He did so, and I wrote it in my note-book, feeling that I was a reporter taking down the facts of something which had only happened yesterday.
“It means “the Chair of Curig`,” he explained. “Afterwards, he came up the valley and built a chapel at Llangurig.”
He drove me through Llanidloes and put me down at the top of the street. As he turned the car round again he leaned over the wheel and waved his hand, crying, “Good luck! Good luck!” And I walked on, thinking that surely hitch-hiking, with all its drawbacks and uncertainties, is the most enjoyable method of travel in the world. The sun was up now and it was very hot, and the road was shaded by great chestnut trees, with a green valley and calm, low hills beyond them. And presently there came another car to take me to Newtown. My driver was employed by the government to discover and value timber which could be requisitioned for the war effort, and he talked enthusiastically of his work which gave him a roving commission over a great part of Wales.
Newtown is an ugly place, dominated by the gas-works. Robert Owen, the social reformer, was born here, and his statue bears his famous phrase, “Each for All”. At Pugh`s cafe` I obtained an excellent and inexpensive lunch. The next table was occupied by a party of schoolgirls, one of whom said, “Are you going to church tomorrow?” to receive a scornful reply, “Lord, no! Waste of good country air.”
A lady drove me on to Welshpool. I had left the Wye at Llangurig and now the Severn accompanied me, with the sugar-loaf peak of the Long Mountains breaking the view in front. We stopped beside the road to gather blackberries, and I told my driver the object of my tour.
“Were the saints always holy people?” she asked.
“Good heavens, no,” I replied. “Some of them, like Wilfred, seem to have been canonized chiefly because they added to the property of the Church; on occasions he was an absolute black-guard. But others – Theodore, for instance – were really great characters and yet were never canonized at all. On the other hand, there were saints like Chad and Aidan who led wonderful lives in times of savagery and brutal manners.”
She told me that behind the attractive main street of Welshpool there was an appalling muddle of squalid and insanitary slums. But beyond the town lay a great stretch of flat pastureland, and there was a queer, pink mountain which might have been sliced away by an enormous knife, and a blue lake set in a dark, emerald ring of firs, with tremendous views of rolling downs towards Shrewsbury. So, in a van carrying sheep to market, I came at length to Oswestry.
I stopped to visit the Parish Church. The sunlight was pouring through the southern windows, striking the frontal of the Lady Chapel altar which was panelled most beautifully in electric green. When I remarked upon it to the verger he insisted on switching on the lights so that I might see the frontal of the High Altar which was of silk of similar design and colour, and he told me, when I questioned him, that the reputed battlefield upon which King Oswald had been slain was a field called Masey Lan and lay outside the town.
Oswald was a Saxon and the Christian King of Northumbria, who was slain by Penda, the last of the pagan chieftains, in 642. Oswestry owes its name to the fact that here Penda exposed the vanquished king`s hand and head upon a post or tree.
The Saxons seem to have settled gradually in England, even during the Roman occupation. There was a Roman official called the Count of Saxon Shore whose task it may have been, not only to guard the forts on the coast of Kent and Sussex which were erected as a bulwark against pirate raids, but also to preside over a settlement of Saxons in those parts, and it is possible, too, that there were German veteran soldiers, pensioned by the Roman army, who resided in this country and who spoke the same tongue and worshipped the same gods as these new conquerors from the mainland.
The name Saxon is derived from a word `Sax`, meaning `Long Knife`. They are first of in the third century in Gaul, and commenced their raids on Britain in 364, though it was nearly a century before they succeeded in settling in Kent and Sussex.
They were cruel and barbarous invaders, but it was the cruelty of a simple and primitive people, not the corruption of men who were evil by nature, and for that reason the Christian missionaries were enabled to preach their message and to convert them without great opposition. Their old gods are still commemorated in the days of our week – Woton (Wednesday), the father-god; Thor (Thursday), the god of thunder, storm and war: Frea (Friday), the goddess of peace and fertility; and Twi (Tuesday), from whom comes our word `twilight`, the goddess of the sky and of death. The name of the Christian festival of the Ressurrection is borrowed from the Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre, and one of the names given to the devil, Old Nick, comes from Nicor, a Saxon water-sprite, while Wyrd, the goddess of death, has supplied our `weird`.
Human sacrifice had some part in their worship. After a pirate raid every tenth captive would be slain in honour of the gods, and the death of a chieftain was sometimes accompanied by the burial slaves in his grave. But other beliefs taught by their paganism served to prepare the way for Christianity, notably the story they told of Balder the Beautiful.
Balder was the symbol of manly youth and beauty, and the goddess Frigga extracted an oath from all Nature that none should harm him; only by the mistletoe, too young to be noticed, was no promise given, gave to the blind giant Haudr an arrow fashioned from mistletoe, which he hurled at Balder in sport, thinking it had no power to harm him, and so caused his death. Hel, goddess of the region of the dead, agreed to give Balder back to the gods if all living things would weep for him, but this one old crone refused to do. To this tale of tragedy the Christian missionary now brought a happy ending, with the promise of a new world devoid of evil, of Loki cast into a bottomless pit and of Balder the Beautiful risen triumphantly from the grave.
Forty years after the Vandals sacked Rome? Britain had been told that she must look to her own defence, and by 447 the last of the legions had been withdrawn, and savage Picts were raiding British territory and meeting with only weak opposition, for the people had been softened and demoralized by four centuries of Roman rule.
It is said that a Welshman named Vortigern, a son-in-law of the usurper Maximus, had first invited Saxon aid against the Picts, and in return had given them the Isle of Thanet in which to settle. They came in long, seventy-foot/21m war vessels, rowed by fifty oars apiece, and were soon discontented with the limitations of their settlement. Vortigern, unable to keep them in rations, for their number was constantly increasing, was forced to take up arms against them, but at a peace council his leaders were treacherously slain, and he himself, in a drunken orgy, agreed to marry Rowena, the daughter of their leader, Hengist, who received the whole of Kent by way of payment. Thus betrayed, the Romanized Britons found a new champion in Ambrosius Aurelius, who drove Vortigern back to Wales and, for a time, succeeded in forcing Hengist to keep to his island lair.
Vortigern had planned to slay Ambrosius when a boy and to sprinkle his blood, as a charm, on the foundations of a citadel which he was erecting against the Saxons. When Bishop Germanus came to St. Albans he found that the Welsh traitor had had a son by his own daughter, who now placed the baby on Germanus` lap and accused the bishop of being its father, but the child miraculously gifted with speech and named Vortigern. The British leader fled to Wales, and there, refusing to repent, the citadel where he had taken refuge was struck by lightening, and he was burned alive in answer to Germanus` curse.
By the close of the fifth century Kent was in the hands of the Jutes, Aella had established himself as King of Sussex, the Engles were gaining hold upon Yorkshire, and the Britons had been driven into the wild mountains of Wales and Cumberland/Cumbria. Now, at last, the history of England moves out of the shadow-land of legend, and the stage is set for the great champions of the Christian Church.
Some years ago, in the hollowed heating chamber beneath the floor of a Roman villa, was found the huddled skeleton of an old man and, scattered around him, a great quantity of coins which he had been clutching in a bag long-since decayed, as he hid in terror from the invasion of the Saxons – a grim memorial of the first coming of our forefather.
These Saxons were agricultural people who, for superstitious reasons, allowed the Roman towns to fall into decay and made their own settlements by families behind earthen ramparts, a part of the neighbouring forest being allocated to each such `tun`. The central building of a chieftain`s `ham` was the `heal` (hall) in which a trestle table was erected for meals and where the walls were hung with tapestries. Separate buildings were used for sleeping. On the fire in the centre of the heal surface coal was sometimes burned, and for food, served on wooden discs from which our word `dish` is derived, there was bread, cheese, fish, and a variety of birds and beasts hunted with greyhounds or caught with hawks in the vast forests which lay on their doorsteps. Mead was drunk from horn-shaped glasses which must be drained at a draught, for they could not stand upright – hence our word `tumbler`.
These heals were easy of access, and hospitality was generous, the early Church making it a rule that all strangers should be given two days` board and lodging without question. But lone travellers were regarded with suspicion and were expected to sound their horns at frequent intervals as they crossed the forest-lands. Generally, there was no excuse for wandering, for every man was, by ownership or serfdom, attached to an estate, only the aged and sick, too feeble to work for any lord, were bound to none, and these were treated with lavish generosity by a Church which set aside one-third of its tithe, a voluntary payment until 779, when it became compulsory, for distribution to the needy.
At social gatherings there were jugglers and jesters to entertain the guests, glee-singing to which all contributed by turn as the harp was passed about the table, violent, energetic dancing and games of dice and chess, with, perhaps, an occasional dancing bear to enliven the evening. The ordinary people rarely went far from their hearths, and only the rich travelled on horseback.
Punishment was mostly fines, except in the case of slaves, who, possessing nothing but their skins, were flogged, and strict laws guarded the chastity of women. Marriages were made by arrangement between the prospective husband and the bride`s father, and settled by a financial transaction of which our gold wedding-ring is a survival, although it seems probable that the lady`s opinion was sought and considered. The marriage of the clergy, while increasingly deplored by the papacy, was by no means forbidden. (This happened after the Conquest).
The head of the community was the king, and, as a general rule, there was no concerted action between the kings of the eight kingdoms into which England was divided; and the title `Bretwalda`, which was claimed by the more powerful of these monarchs from time to time, seems to have been the reward for suppressing hostile forces rather than to denote an overlordship of the whole country. Ethelfrid the Fierce became Bretwalda for defeating the Britons at Chester, and Redwald of East Anglia seized the title when he slew Ethelfrid and placed Edwin upon the throne of Northumbria. On the other hand, when Oswald was King of Northumbria, he seems to have had some right of overlordship over the Kingdom of Wessex and to have been consulted before Birinus was elected bishop there.
The king was regarded as the servant of the people and was chosen, generally from a selected family, by the witan; the crown did not descend from father to son. Rarely could the king act apart from the witan in any important matter, such as the acceptance of Baptism and a new religion. The witan was composed of the ealdermen, bishops and abbots, and had powers not only to elect, but also to depose, the king, to conscript for war, levy taxes and make new laws. With the acceptance of Christianity as the tribal Faith, it was often the witan which regulated fasts and feasts, decreed public holidays and guarded Church finance.
Next to the ealdermen came the freedmen, who were landed gentry with obligation to serve the king in battle, and who had the right to wear their hair long as a symbol of liberty, in contrast to which the monks had hair close-cropped and shaven, signifying serfdom to Christ. The serf was bound to his lord`s land, where he had certain rights and liberties which raised him above the status of mere slavery.
The first missionaries were all, without exception, monks, for the monastery formed a haven of safety in a heathen, and often barbarous , land, while communities of priests were able to bring to public worship an imposing ceremonial wherewith to impress simple heathen minds.
In the earliest days of missionary enterprise these monasteries were invariably founded in the shadow of the palace, claiming royal protection, and nowhere did any monk preach without the consent and approval of king and witan. Such permission seems to have been easily obtained, for the pagan faith had little hold on the invaders, and even Penda, the last of the heathen kings, who slew no less five Christian kings in warfare, never persecuted the Faith or joined battle for religious reasons.
Saxon England was constantly torn by warfare between the kingdoms; and vanity of dress and excessive drinking were national vices, but the invaders brought a new sturdiness to the country, and their Christianity was virile and independent, producing many able and illustrious men for the leadership of Church and State which, throughout the centuries of Saxon domination, were closely and intimately bound together.
It was mid-afternoon when I left Oswestry and walked four miles/6.4km along the road towards Chirk, until a lorry picked me up and bore me through a cool and shady avenue of giant trees, with a last, magnificent view of Cheshire as we left the prosaic, red-bricked houses of five-spired Wrexham. Here, in 447, the year of the final Roman evacuation, the British Church established the great monastery of Bangor Iscoed, a centre of learning and culture, whose monks were massacred by Ethelfrid at the Battle of Chester.
The retreating hills of Wales grew into a far silhouette of mauve and blue; then came the great chimney and smoking slag-tip of Gresford colliery where, some years ago, three hundred men lost their lives in the most terrible pit disaster of the century. (Being put into a moving miners` song of this terrible disaster). Crossing the boundary, we passed “the last public house where you can get a drink on Sunday”, to quote my driver, and entered Chester by the racecourse and the bridge which spans the broad, clear waters of the Dee.
Chester is a warm, homely city of friendly sandstone, compassed about with old, grey walls from which King Charles looked out upon the Battle of Rowton Heath, and the narrow, bustling streets are overhung by black timber balconies along which you may walk to shop, lending to the town an Elizabethan charm which allows you to feel at leisure even when you find yourself, as I did, in the excitement of a Saturday evening crowd.
The cathedral is built of the same warm, red stone, and there are many altars, in blue, and red, and gold, and every colour, each dedicated to its own particular organization and so centring, as it were, the social life of a city upon the place of worship, which is still its mother and was once its `raison d`etre`. There is a tiny, delicate picture of the Virgin painted upon a fabric woven from spiders` webs, an old book by a bishop of the Stuarts proving that there is a world of men upon the moon, a creamy whale-tusk cunningly carved with Biblical pictures, and many other things to make one wish to linger.
The cathedral itself was founded in 875 to form a shrine for the bones of a certain nun of Ely, named Werburga, daughter of the Saxon King Wulfhere who built the first cathedral at Peterborough; her relics were brought to Chester to guard them from destruction of the Danes, but her shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII and only a few fragments remain.
Somewhere near the walls of Chester Ethelfrid the Fierce defeated the British in 613, first slaughtering a great company of unarmed monks who had come to support the natives with their prayers, an act which may have been instigated by the fact that they had given shelter to Edwin, rightful King of Northumbria, whom Ethelfrid had kept from his throne and driven into exile.
In the evening a Waaf (Women`s auxiliary air force) motored me out of the city, and two gentlemen returning from a football match took me in their car to Mold. Here I met once more Germanus of Auxerre who confuted the heresy of Pelagius at St. Albans, consecrated Patrick for Ireland, and now led an army of newly baptized converts to defeat a great invading force of Picts in the valley of the Flintshire towns. It has been hinted that the Picts were cannibals, and Nennius calls them `the nude ones` who `cover their hang-dog countenances with hair rather than the indecent parts of their bodies with clothing`. Their name means `those who scream`, and doubtless they formed a terrifying spectacle as, in innumerable and undisciplined hordes, painted with woad and uttering fierce cries, they came leaping over those harsh and desolate hills to hurl themselves upon any unprotected settlement where there was a promise of spoil and loot. Against the approaching multitude of savages Germanus lined his Saxon converts; on a word from him they advanced crying `Alleluia`, and the mountains picked up and re-echoed the chant of their voices. On a hundred rocks and boulders the small, hairy figures of the Picts were frozen suddenly in awed immobility, and then, as the cry went forth again – `Alleluia! Alleluia! – they turned and fled, stunted shadows racing in terror across the wilderness of forbidding mountains, to be lost at last in the deeper shadows of approaching night.
Germanus made a second visit to England just before his death, in 448. Legend says that he once more visited Wales, this time again to confute Pelagianism, which had sprung up anew, and when none could be found with voice sufficiently strong to speak to the great multitude which had assembled, so that it seemed that the heresy would continue unchallenged, David came and, spurning the impromptu pulpit which they had built by piling up their cloaks, stood only on a handkerchief, and in tones which echoed to the further extremities of the vast audience, refuted the heretic, the ground meantime swelling beneath him so that he was lifted high above their heads.
Gildas the historian does mention Germanus in his writings, which is strange and not a little disconcerting, since they were contemporaries, and so, perhaps the bishop never came to Wales.
Yet, as you walk out of Mold into the grim, harsh mountains towards Ruthin, where gorse and fir struggle to hide a forsaken pit-shaft or the cold and broken chimney of a mine long since disused, you will feel that the wild settings of the Alleluia Victory is still here unchanged, and as the shadows lengthen and darken you will pause to glance across your shoulder, half-fearful that the humped figure of a savage Pict lurks in the grim shadows of the pines. Mold is still desolate, but with the later desolation of a broken industry and a decayed commercialism, and the dreary, inhospitable town wrapped in a tired and colourless depression. It is a town dead to all but memories and ghosts.
Outside Mold was once a barrow, possibly a Roman grave, which the natives called the Fairy Hill and asserted to be haunted, for a woman, passing it late one night, had seen a strange figure standing above it, clothed, she said, in a vestment of dazzling gold. Years afterwards the barrow was excavated and within was found a skeleton wearing a thin corset of gold metal which now reposes in the British Museum.
No ghost ever chose a more fitting solitude in which to prowl, for Mold is haunted by the past; one feels its future is only to crumble and to die.