Yesterday we walked around the northern coasts of the Llyn Penisula (North Wales), braving the high winds and feral seagulls. There is something quite dramatic about the Llyn, with the trio of mountains (known as ‘The Rivals’) forming a gateway to a landscape dotted with remnants of ancient settlements and worship. It seems that each time I visit the Llyn I am drawn deeper into its story.
At the tip of the Llyn Penisula we find Bardsey Island and there is definitely something about Bardsey. In English its name refers to an island of bards, in Welsh (Yns Enlli) it suggests an island in the currents. It sits like a small jewel off the tip of the jagged coast line and has been inhabited since neolithic times. Bardsey has been a pilgrimage site for many years, three trips to Bardsey was the equal of a trip to Rome. A hermitage has stood here since the earliest days of Christianity in Britain, although it has been knocked down a few times along the way. Brave and devout souls floated over from France and Ireland on rudimentary rafts to preach the words they regarded to be true and lead this wild and untamed island nation away from sin, towards redemption. These remarkable old saints, hermits and pilgrims were very wise, putting a little ocean between themselves and their rabid flock (although that didn’t help when the vikings showed up!).
The history of this isolated retreat is fascinating, its location stunning, but as usual, the myths and legends are what sets it apart and fuels the imagination to imbued a large rock with magical properties and some intangible, mystical allure. 20,000 saints are said to be buried on the island, making the soil rich and fertile. It has even been claimed that Prince Arthur is buried in a cave there. To get there, you still need to call a local chap in a small fishing boat to take you there and hopefully back. If the weather flares up, you can be stranded on the island, where there is still no electricity. It suggested that you draw up a will before visiting Bardsey, it is said that the Llyn extends into the ocean just as life extends into the unknown emptiness and once we have reached Bardsey, we are relieved of earthly cares (meaning we are now number 20,001).
What can be said about the allure of Bardsey, it seems so close from the shore, we feel that we could touch it, except it is far enough away for us to fall and perish in the fierce waves of the Irish Sea. I see Bardsey Island as a metaphor for our spiritual journey through life, as we build a bastion from rocks and earth to hide us from the endless waves and commotion, deep inside our soul is ever drawing us deeper towards harmony, as we venture out into the raging oceans of calm and set sail into the blissful unknown. One pilgrim wrote that Bardsey is “the land of indulgences, absolution and pardon, the road to Heaven, and the gate to Paradise” and on a day like yesterday, I can see why.
I have included some photographs and poetry that I hope captures something of these sentiments:
Bardsey Island in the distance
Gorse and Heather
There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat, the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches. So I have gone
up the salt lane to the building
with the stone altar, and the candles
gone out, and kneeled and lifted
my eyes to the furious gargoyle
of the owl that is like a god
gone small and resentful. There
is no body in the stained window
of the sky now. Am I too late?
Were they too late also, those
first pilgrims? He is such a fast
God, always before us, and
leaving as we arrive.
There are those here
not given to prayer, whose office
is the blank sea that they say daily.
What they listen to is not
hymns, but the slow chemistry of the soil,
that turns saints’ bones into dust,
dust to an irritant of the nostril.
There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock; the events
are dateless. These people are not
late or soon; they are just
here, with only the one question
to ask, which life answers
by being in them. It is I
who ask. Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that, in times
like these, and for one like me,
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather, and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?
“Pilgrimages” by R. S. Thomas
And that’s why I have to go back
to so many places in the future,
there to find myself
and constantly examine myself
with no witness but the moon
and then whistle with joy.
ambling over rocks and clods of earth,
with no task but to live,
with no family but the road.
We passed the ice of pain,
And came to a dark ravine,
And there we sang with the sea:
The wide, the bleak abyss
Shifted with our slow kiss.
Space struggled with time;
The gong of midnight struck
The naked absolute.
Sound, silence sang as one.
All flowed: without, within;
Body met body, we
Created what’s to be.
What else to say?
We end in joy.
The Moment – Theodore Roethke