A place set apart from the world, an ancient church and a holy well.
Please note that Patrishow is a remote location, accessed via a winding single-track road, with limited parking.
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
At the end of a country lane, deep in the Gwyne Fawr valley in the heart of the Black Mountains, Patrishow (also known as Partrishow, Patricio) feels like a place set apart from modern life.
In the Middle Ages, however, Patrishow was on an important east-west route, between England and Wales, across the ridges of the Black Mountains. But this place has always had a complex and nuanced relationship with the rest of the world, as a place of spiritual retreat and sanctity.
This site was reputedly the hermitage of the early Welsh saint Issui (perhaps seventh century), who lived by the holy well close to the church. St Issui’s adoption of this well as his home may reflect that it was already associated with pagan traditions of magic and healing. The church, dedicated to St Issui, dates from the mid-eleventh century, with a Norman nave, a capel y bedd at the west end, dating mostly from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, and a sixteenth-century chancel. Particularly important features of the church include its finely-decorated rood screen (c. 1500), with foliate carvings and wyverns, the roof, and the eleventh-century font, which has an inscription to Cynhillin, Lord of Ystrad Yw. There are also many notable wall paintings, including an image of a skeletal ‘Time’, holding a scythe, hourglass and spade (sixteenth century).
The holy well is still here, and you will see that the tradition of leaving votive offerings continues today. Visitors continue to be drawn to this special place, expressing their hopes and longings through offerings, prayer and quiet contemplation.
The Hanged Man’s Journey
The votive offerings at the well, here at Patrishow, remind us of the traditions and devotional practices through which ordinary people have expressed their faith, and their individual hopes and wishes.
The story of William Cragh, the hanged man of medieval Swansea, includes details of several of these popular traditions.
William Cragh remembers that, in the dungeons of Swansea Castle, on the night before his execution, he ‘bent a penny to St Thomas’. This custom involved folding a coin in half, as a votive offering to the saint, asking for his intercession and intervention. After Cragh was hanged, as he lay in the house of a local townsman, Lady Mary de Briouze (wife of the Anglo-Norman Lord), ordered him to be ‘measured to St Thomas’. This meant that a piece of string would be cut to the length of his body: this would then be twisted into the wick of a candle, which would be given as an offering to the shrine of the saint. Interestingly, Lady Mary describes this as ‘following the English custom’, reflecting how devotional practices varied according to cultural identity and traditions.
Did these customs work?
William Cragh, of course, did apparently come back to life after his hanging, understood by the medieval witnesses as the intervention of St Thomas of Hereford. Just as importantly, participating in these traditions was a way for ordinary medieval people to express their beliefs, hopes and allegiances. These practices also transformed abstract spiritual ideas into tangible material objects, and real, embodied activities and experiences – just like the act of leaving an offering at the well of St Issui in the Middle Ages and today.
St Thomas and Medieval Belief
Many folk customs developed around saints and pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, and St Thomas of Hereford is no exception.
As with other saints’ shrines in the Middle Ages, pilgrims visiting the shrine of St Thomas at Hereford would bring with them wax votive models to represent either their request for saintly aid, or what they were giving thanks for. For example, someone who was lame and seeking help might bring a wax model of a leg. On his pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas, William Cragh – the hanged man of medieval Swansea – brought a wax model of a hanged man and gallows. He also wore the noose he had been hanged with around his neck, as a symbol of the saint’s intervention and his own penitence.
Pilgrim badges were another popular tradition associated with saints’ shrines and pilgrimage, dating from the later twelfth century onwards.
Pilgrim badges could be touched against the saint’s shrine, so that they became ‘contact relics’ – themselves absorbing some of the saint’s holiness and power. Many pilgrim badges from the Middle Ages survive today, with different designs linked to the saints they represent. They were an affordable ‘souvenir’ for many pilgrims: by the fifteenth century, they cost about a penny a dozen.
A place of inner and outer vision
A mysterious and ‘thin’ place, where the earthly and spiritual touch: a Saint’s shrine, a holy well, a wondrous rood screen, a medieval cross, and all hidden on the narrow ledge of a steep mountainside. From the churchyard the view reaches far, far away to the south east, over the lower Grwyne Fawr, with the Nant Mair stream flowing below. Hiddenness and far-sighted vision. Was this the pattern of St Issui’s life here, that early Welsh hermit murdered so long ago in this peaceful place?
From the time of Issui’s martyrdom onwards Patrishow has attracted pilgrims. It is a long and challenging climb up, but people great and small have made it through the ages. Perhaps the experience of somewhere that is almost hidden, but also with a panoramic view, speaks to our souls. Patrishow is a sign that when we attend quietly to our own hidden depths we become open to a clearer sighted vision of the world.
Lord, make me like St Issui. May I be watered by the springs of creation, sheltered by the high hills and warmed by the southern sun. Help me to explore the hidden places of my soul that I might see the people and situations of my life with a deeper, clearer, more compassionate understanding.
The hills around Patrishow are covered with trees native to the Brecon Beacons.
Among these can be found Ash, Oak, Wild Cherry, Silver Birch, Rowan, Hazel and White Willow. Alongside these trees many shrubs can also be found, including Buckthorn, Hawthorn and Elder.
The Sessile Oak can be found all around Patrishow. These trees can grow up to 20-40m, and as they mature their branches form a broad, spreading crown. They have distinctive lobed leaves with a long stalk and the trees can be differentiated from the Pedunculate (English) Oak by their stalkless acorns. The Oak has been a symbol of strength throughout the British Isles for centuries. Druids often performed rituals in oak groves and ancient kings adorned themselves with crowns of oak leaves.
Trees and ritual
A few feet away from St Issui’s and the Holy Well at Patrishow is a tree encrusted with coins. Although this is not an historic coin-tree (none of the embedded coins are pre-decimal), it is a sign of both the significance of trees in folklore and the ritualistic disposition of the site.
The surrounding trees have rooted themselves inside the church itself, with the unusual parish chest carved from a single solid tree trunk and the Tudor roodscreen, made of Irish Oak and decorated with dragons, wyverns and various foliage.
Specially-chosen music for this location from Hereford Cathedral, and present-day ambient sound at the Holy Well of St Issui.
Distance: 6.5 miles
Time: 3.5 hours
Access: Moderate difficulty; some steep hills, stiles and narrow footpaths; not suitable for wheelchairs and buggies; walking boots or suitable footwear recommended.
Be aware that this walking route is in a secluded location and accessed via a narrow, single-track road.
- Start your walk at St Issui’s Church. The current church building dates from the fourteenth century, although a church has existed on this site since the early eleventh century. After visiting the church, go through the churchyard and pass through the kissing gate to the footpath. Walking east head down towards the stile near the farm and pass to the north, skirting the farm boundary to your right. Follow the yellow footpath arrows through the farm onto a track, which leads downhill. With a ruined house to your left and the river to the right, take the right-hand footpath at the fork and follow the signs to the ‘Tabernacle Chapel’. Cross over the footbridge.
- On your left you will see the Tabernacle Chapel, a Baptist Chapel dating from 1837.Follow the path up the hill on the left towards a cream farmhouse, keeping to the path on the right at the fork and again on the right at another fork.
- After Upper House as you come onto access land, turn right and follow the wall up to Dial Garreg (the Revenge Stone), which marks the spot where Norman Marcher Lord, Richard de Clare, was attacked and killed by Morgan ap Owen in 1135.Follow the path as it zigzags uphill and then turn left to follow the path running parallel to the boundary on your right and walk along the top of the ridge with Llanthony Wood on your left.
- Follow the path along the ridge until you see a steep hill – Twyn y Gaer, the site of an Iron Age Hill Fort. Follow the path as it goes downhill in front of the fort.
- Following the base of the hill towards Ferm Newydd, with the woods to your right and the hill fort to your left. After Ferm Newydd, turn left and continue until you reach the main road.
- When you reach the crossroads, where five roads meet, take the road opposite and slightly to the right, leading over the river. Climb over the stile on the right and take the footpath that leads uphill. The path follows the contours of the hill, going up to the right, climbing over two more stiles. On your left you will see the remains of an old Holloway.
- At Gwernybustach climb over the stone stile and turn left onto the main road. After the stream, take the footpath on your left. This will lead you along the bottom of the hill below the farm you originally walked though. Climb over the style and finish your walk at the Holy Well of St Issui.