Holier than thou: the Welsh, pilgrimage and why now might be the time to make one to Wales

(6-minute read)

© Luke Waterson

In autumn 2019 the Welsh Government announced a new ‘Pilgrimage Trail’ linking 500 churches and chapels across the parts of Wales featuring on its cross-country touring route, the Wales Way. The project has yet to come into fruition but the fundamental elements of it, the holy buildings themselves, have been there for all to visit for one hundred years or more. One wonders why it has taken the nation’s tourism authorities so long to clock the potential advantages of promulgating its sacred sites to visitors in modern times (try an online search on this topic contrasted with the plethora of results that surface for other popular aspects of Wales such as its castles or singing abilities) when historically it was big business.

Pilgrims have been flocking to Wales for at least a millennium. And there never used to be any reticence about mixing religious devotion and marketing campaigns. St Davids in Pembrokeshire flourished on trade from the faithful for centuries during medieval times, attracting early royals William the Conqueror and Henry II (although their motivations were a little darker than straightforward pious peregrination) before Pope Calixtus II prestigiously proclaimed a pilgrimage here equivalent to two to Rome, and the floodgates opened to thousands more devotees. St Winefride’s Well in the Flintshire village of Holywell marketed itself as the ‘Lourdes of Wales’ and lured big-spending celebrities from Richard I (angling for blessing for his upcoming Crusade, in 1189) to the then heirless James II and his wife Mary of Modena in 1686 (the couple conceived shortly afterwards). One would have conjectured that a national promotion campaign to the tune of ‘Wales: enticing the faithful for one thousand years’ would have done wonders for a tourism industry which has often struggled compared to Ireland’s or Scotland’s.

The success of these early pilgrimage centres in Wales can be ascribed to the potency of the miracle affiliated to the site. St David certainly has a better-than-average backstory as saints go: inducing the ground below his feet to rise so more people could observe his sermon, resuscitating a child by a splash of his tears, having a strong claim to being the person responsible for the spread of Christianity throughout Britain and with the 900th anniversary of his canonisation coming up in 2020. St Winefride: well… she was a virgin who shunned a prince’s amorous approaches, got beheaded then restored to life and is the saint behind the well that now claims to be Britain’s oldest continually visited pilgrimage site.

A sense of otherness was also often associated with pilgrimage places that kindled the curiosity of the intrepid. A medieval journey to northeast or southwest Wales was a serious undertaking from England or continental Europe. Go by the mountains and one risked encounters with brigands, native Welsh with understandable anti-English sentiments and wild tracts of country with no shelter from the notoriously vile weather. Go by the coast and the way was made protracted by the many estuary inlets and precarious by the inclination of many to cross them with little knowledge of fickle tides. Still, completing the journey would have been so much the sweeter for having negotiated the obstacles en route, and chance of death by misadventure was significantly less than on a trip to the Holy Land. And so adventuring pilgrims willingly took up the challenge.

But there was another reason pilgrimage thrived in Wales. The country has long exuded a certain spirituality, and to a greater degree than other places.

Perhaps this originated in the Age of the Saints, in the 5th or 6th centuries AD, with the missionaries who journeyed from across the Celtic world – Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland and Wales – to spread the word of Christianity. The idea of the cloaked figure arriving to enlighten a barbarous population certainly fires the imagination, and the traces of this period permeate the West Wales landscape still – in the form of ogham stones, inscribed with the language these missionaries used.

Perhaps Cistercian monasteries accentuated Wales’ spiritual feel. Between 1131 and 1226 thirteen such monasteries were founded in the country’s remote uplands (no shabby tally, for no-man’s-land) and met with unprecedented success in terms of engaging the native Welsh: their situations on land unconquered by Normans, their ethos of austerity and dependance on farming and pastoral activities for survival were no doubt of appeal. 12th-century chronicler Gerald of Wales observed during this period that ‘nowhere can you see hermits and anchorites more abstinent and spiritually committed than in Wales’ because ‘the Welsh go to extremes in all matters’. He also noted the Welsh ‘pay greater respect than other people to their churches’ and that as a result ‘the churches in Wales are more quiet and tranquil than those elsewhere.’ (1).

Or perhaps the spirituality began to reverberate later still, with the advent of nonconformity: Methodism, Calvinistic Methodism (later Presbyterianism) and Wesleyan Methodism. These burgeoning breakaway movements from the Anglican Church in Wales raised their own distinctive buildings. These were largely chapels; simple, severe-seeming buildings with their high, narrow arched windows ungenerous with the light they emitted on a bright day and on the more regularly-occurring gloomy ones little better illuminated than a medieval castle keep. And yet, being frequently built in countrified or isolated locations (or at least, being more conspicuous in such locations because of the absence of other edifices), they simultaneously stood out from and emphasised the moody drama of the wild surrounding scenery. They spoke volumes, and speak volumes still of their founders’ original mission: to preach and practice devotion which resonated strongly with the individual worshipper even in the loneliest of parishes; to take religion out of overarching urban-focused institutions to the people with equal measure whether they were city-dwellers or middle-of-nowhere farmers. The image of yesteryear’s pious countryman or woman journeying sometimes for many miles over hills and through fields from their outlying home to worship at these remoter chapels is of course more evocative than that of the urbanite strolling down the street to their local church.

There are, purportedly, an astonishing 6427 chapels across Wales. A Welsh parish boasts on average four times the number of religious buildings per head of population that an English parish does. This could certainly be why Wales impresses as such a devout nation today (2). The further you venture into the back of beyond, the more palpable the devoutness of the Welsh. It is commonplace in a Welsh village or town to explain away a particular person’s behaviour on the basis that they are either ‘chapel’ or ‘church’; community life revolves around the church or chapel as much as it does the pub and often more so, and because of the comparative isolation of these villages, compared to England or Ireland, the importance of a place’s holy buildings is underscored.

‘The Celts called this a thin place,’ says Ian Tweedale (3), a guide for pilgrimage adventure outfit Journeying, who are launching a new trail linking Wales and Ireland in honour of the anniversary of St David’s canonisation, ‘where the gap between earth and heaven is small. This connection was felt by the early Celtic saints such as St Patrick, St David and St Aidan and it can still be felt to this day.’

Do not come to Wales because 2020 is a landmark year for its patron saint. And certainly do not come because an official pilgrimage trail may soon open: you could have quite a wait. But do come. And to come to tap into the inexplicable spiritual feel that pervades in much of the country, to come because Wales is a place where the gap between earth and heaven is small – this at least makes a change from coming to swarm up Snowdon. Unfurl a map, aim for any of several thousand crosses marking the holy buildings of Wales today, and plot your own route. It will bring you to some far-flung and dashingly beautiful places. It will give you the chance to slow down, because of the narrow lanes and rutted pathways you will need to take, and reflect, because of the history of the places you will visit. And because many of Wales’ churches, chapels, abbeys and monasteries are forgotten even by the Welsh, you will have ample opportunity to escape and be utterly by yourself.

(1) Descriptio Cambriae (1194)

(2) Welshchapels.org

(3) READ ON: Our interview with Iain on the current popularity of pilgrimage, St David, the strange and special beauty of Pembrokeshire and life on monastic Caldey Island