This past July, I spent about two weeks walking the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way. The North Wales Way approximates an old medieval pilgrimage route between Holywell, down the Llyn Peninsula to Aberdaron, culminating at the island of Bardsey — more properly Ynys Enlli, to give it its Welsh name, often referred to simply as Enlli.
The present route, stitched together from public footpaths and existing trails, has not been continuous for very long, and in part I want to write about the experience simply to bring greater attention to the route. Most people, if they have an interest in pilgrimage, gravitate inevitably (and understandably) toward the Camino, the great network of routes across southern France to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, to the extent that “The Way” has become, if anything, somewhat overtraveled of late. There are other places to go, with as rich a history, as the British Pilgrimage Trust has recently argued. Besides, even for Camino veterans, pilgrimage can become strangely addictive, as Martin Sheen discovers in his son’s film The Way. Once in the mindset, all endpoints are arbitrary: the road goes ever on and on, and you’re never really done.
There is a kind of natural progression to the North Wales way: beginning in Holywell, just over the border facing the Dee estuary, at the shrine of St. Winifrid (the location of Brother Cadfael’s first mystery, if there are any fans), traveling steadily west and south to Bangor and into Snowdonia, and then breaking through the mountains and down into the stark, sea-encircled beauty of the ŷ Peninsula, where Winifrid’s uncle Beuno also has a following.
The weather, in my case, contributed: for me, Snowdon and the moors were wrapped in fog and rain; I came over the peak of Mt. Pleasant in the fog, and ended my journey slightly dazed by several days of blazing sunshine on the green-blue sea. Let it never be said that one cannot get badly sunburned in Wales. One is also, very definitely, traveling from what used to be the Marches into “Welshness” of increasing pride, depth, and intensity; the Llyn is presently home to more native-speakers than not, and I had more than one conversation with people for whom English was very definitely not their first language. I just happened to be hiking during the Wales match against Portugal in the UEFA Euro semi-final: bunting and national flags still flew proudly a week later in many of the villages through which I hiked.
There are intricate, overlapping layers of history along the way: the prehistoric stone circles of Penmaenmawr, barrows, standing stones, and iron age forts in the Llyn, Roman lighthouses along the Dee, (surely!) pre-Christian sites baptized into the new religion, such as the spectacular 4,000-year-old yew tree at Llangernyw, Mary’s Well near Aberdaron, Beuno’s Well, and Holywell itself. There is the wonderful and strange early medieval high-cross-like Lamentation Stone at Maen Achwyfan, the Edwardian daisy-chain of castles and fortifications along the coast culminating at Caernarvon, the ruins of the Cistercian foundation at Basingwerk Abbey, the stunning Tudor pilgrimage church at Clynnog Fawr, a Morgan Bible, translating scripture into Welsh, kept at the Cathedral at St. Asaph, and in more modern times, the quarrying, fishing, and ship-building history of the region.
And there is Enlli itself, “in the tides.” Like Cuthbert’s Farne off the Northumbrian coast, it is a precious sanctuary for birds and seals; at the same time, among the 19th-century buildings dating from when the island still had tenants, it preserves the ruins of an Augustinian monastery and a graveyard where, it is estimated, 20,000 souls are buried, from when some believed that dying on Enlli allowed one to bypass purgatory entirely.
For an American, one of the great pleasures of the North Wales Way, and indeed, of hiking in the U.K. generally, is the opportunity to engage with the venerable tradition of walking and the network of public footpaths through working farm country. These simply do not exist in America, where cheap, private land ownership and urban sprawl have created a suburbia more often built for cars than for the pedestrian. The exception to this, of course, is in the national parks, where American paths tend to have a subtly manicured character.
There is nothing like the Welsh or English (Theoretically) Public Footpath:
- genus a: invisible
- genus b: accessible only through/under/over fallen trees, brambles, hedgerose, bracken fern, nettles, thistles, and manure of every variety, age, and description;
- genus c: six feet away from you on the other side of the hedge because you went thoughtlessly through the wrong gate out of three and down that really steep hill and now the only way forward is back, back, back, and up, up, up.
For the smartphoned, the British Pilgrimage Trust highly recommends the Ordinance Survey App, which not only relieves you of reading and refolding bundles of maps in the rain, but also has a handy GPS locator (mercifully not dependent on how much or how little reception there is), telling you not only where you are but, crucially for the directionally challenged like me, which way you are facing. One can object to the Internetting of such a deliberately low-tech experience as pilgrimage, but particularly for a hiker traveling alone, I found that it eased anxiety.
This is perhaps the place to add that, yes, the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way is marked: that being said, the marker is a green and white circular sticker about three inches in diameter, stuck to a stile or a fence post (usually), and is of absolutely no use whatsoever across an enormous field unless you already know (mostly) where you are going.
Pilgrimage has, now and historically, always been a deliberately embodied way into religious experience. It is at times, quite simply, plain hard work, in which, uprooted from one’s normal rhythms and resources, one confronts one’s own physical, emotional, and spiritual vulnerabilities. In the stable, traditional agricultural society of medieval world, criminals were often sentenced to pilgrimage: expiation and hard labor together, facing danger, expense, and disease. It is not profound all or even most of the time; one brings oneself along as surely as one’s rucksack, and truly deep thought, sad to say, does not tend to occur halfway up a mountain. Meaning and significance emerge slowly and sometimes after the experience itself is over.
Even at the time, however, I found the experience of travelling to, and remaining on Enlli intensely moving: and this from someone who was and remains highly skeptical of fuzzy notions about Celtic spirituality! (In brief, I find “Celtic” to be a portmanteau word that tends to muddle a variety of regional approaches within historical Christianity that, if they are anything, are intensely local, concrete, and distinct, and not necessarily antithetical to Rome.)
Already walking down the coast path to Aberdaron I had had the feeling of being slowly, gently pressed, like a Victorian pansy, between translucent planes of sea and sky: one feels strangely exposed on the Llyn. Enlli is, even today, just hard enough to get to that one feels one is stepping through a mirror into another world; like many small islands, it has its own self-enclosed rhythms in which thought simplifies and expands. From seals to shearwaters to sheep, one is highly aware, all the time, of stepping between the threads of other lives. In the words of a local poet, Christine Evans, in her gorgeous poem about Enlli, “The Island of Dark Horses”:
This is a real place, small enough/ to see whole, big enough to lose/ our own importance … sharpening the focus slowly, letting difference shine.