Centuries ago, pilgrims in their thousands were finding their way to Bardsey Island, drawn there by stories of the special peace to be found at the edge of the western world – drawn to the place of the setting sun, with only the vast ocean between them and the unknown.
Today a route has been waymarked, linking ancient churches dedicated to the saints of the 6th century whose gentle faith, entwined with a sense of the beauty and wonder of nature, still echoes with us today.
Basingwerk Abbey, Holywell, in the north east of Wales, marks the start of the Pilgrim’s Way. The route leads through woodland and over rivers, up mountains and along coast paths, through wilderness and into villages. It celebrates the heritage of those Celtic saints whose stories are lost in the mists of time but whose memory reverberates in ancient churches and at holy wells along the way.
The Pilgrim’s Way is a walking route of over 130 miles. Tiny stone churches nestled into the hills provide shelter and rest along the Way, much as they would have done in the past. Now the tradition of pilgrimage is being rediscovered and reinvented for a new age. Present day pilgrims have described the experience as “resetting the defaults,” as “time out” and “a time to wander and wonder.” We may indeed wonder as we encounter the 12 foot high cross at Maen Achwyfan – a thousand years old, carved with Celtic knotting and still standing enigmatic and isolated in the middle of a field – with its mix of Christian and pagan symbols. We may wonder, as we pass the stone circles above the Conwy valley, about life all those years ago. And we soak up the beauty of the Welsh landscape.
To go on pilgrimage today is to go on a walk with an extra dimension. Engaging with the challenges of the terrain and the weather, everyday preoccupations are swept away and the pilgrim is caught up in the bigger picture. Perspectives change, priorities reassessed. To cross the sea in an open boat and arrive on Bardsey Island itself is the pinnacle of that experience. And to carry home that peace and quietness is the gift that remains.