Come with me on the journey I made yesterday through the beautiful Welsh countryside to a remote and hidden valley, deep in the Berwyn Mountains. It lies more than two miles down a narrow, single track lane from the main road and to come to it is like stepping back through time and history.
There, in a typically Welsh mediaeval church, you will find a shrine to a 7th century saint. Shrine, church and valley together make what the ancient Celts used to call a “thin place” – a place where it is easy to feel that two worlds meet.
This is an ancient place. The circular churchyard, its very shape a sign of its antiquity, lies over a Bronze Age burial ground, dating back to around 1200BC. It is enclosed by a ring of venerable yew trees, which some of which have been estimated to be at least 2000 years old.
It was here, so tradition and legend tell us, that an Irish princess named Melangell came to live as a Christian hermit in the 7th century and here that she was found at prayer by Brochwel, Prince of Powys, when he was out hunting. The hare he was chasing took refuge under Melangell’s skirt and the hounds fled.
Brochwel, impressed by Melangell and her story, gave her the valley of Pennant, where she founded a small religious community and where, after many years as its abbess, she died and was buried.
The valley was then named after her and the shrine of Pennant Melangell became a place of pilgrimage for centuries, until it was dismantled at the Reformation and its stones were built into the walls of the church and the lych-gate.
The present church building, though much restored over the years, dates back to the 12th century and at its heart is the reconstructed shrine, its stones retrieved from their centuries-long resting places and reassembled where they once stood. It is again a centre of pilgrimage where people come to be quiet and apart in a place, where, as the poet T S Eliot put it, prayer has been valid.
I was there for a Mothers’ Union Quiet Day and in the silence I discovered again the timeless beauty of a place I first visited nearly twenty years ago.
When we reluctantly had to leave, we drove home a different way, over the Berwyns, past Bala and its lake and back to our own bit of Mid-Wales, almost overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of the landscape of this little country in which we are fortunate enough to live.
I wandered the narrow, flower-edged lanes,
stood stock-still for ages in the church porch
to watch a pair of swallows feeding their young
imagined the pilgrims who had made their way here over the centuries
and sat quietly in the rebuilt mediaeval apse of the church,
absorbed in the play of light and shade
on the plain, white-washed stone walls,
and acutely conscious of the atmosphere of prayer.