Friday, June 06, 2014

A place apart

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. 


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.


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. 






63 comments:

  1. "...almost overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of the landscape of this little country in which we are fortunate enough to live."

    It gets us like that too, every time we venture out, even for something as mundane as the weekly supermarket shop. The day I bought my little house here in Powys, in 2000, was a good day's work well done.

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    1. After more than 40 years here it's still the same for us, Marion. This is a truly wonderful circular run - Oswestry road as far as Llynclys, then left into the Tanat Valley to Llangynog and over the top to Bala. Then along to Dolgellau, over Dinas Mawddwy and chose your own route back home.Well worth the trip in the Little Green Dragon on a glorious day like yesterday. :-)

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  2. What a wonderful post, Perpetua. I believe I know Wales well but this is a location totally new to me. And from looking at your excellent photos, you obviously had the Welsh rarity of the weather being kind to you :-) What a wonderful place in which to spend a Quiet Day.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Ricky. It isn't always easy to convey an atmosphere in words and I so wanted to do so. Pennant Melangell is very remote, but does figure on large-scale road maps if you first find Llangynog.on the borders of Powys and Gwynedd. The weather was dry all day (quite a rarity this spring) and became sunnier as the day went on until we drove home in brilliant sunshine. :-)

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  3. And in those 'dry' periods, just being still and attentive in a place which has been a house of prayer for so long tends to reopen the valves.
    A beautiful area...not one I know at all, but sorry not to have done so to judge from your photographs and description.

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    1. You're absolutely right, Helen. it was just what I needed - a day away from everything that normally distracts me. I could have sat there for a very long time.

      It's a glorious area, but definitely off the beaten track, which makes its peace and tranquility very marked. Even on the drive home there were very few cars about - just glorious emptiness.

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  4. So lovely, Perpetua - informative and beautiful. A wonderful glimspe of mid-Wales. Thank you for sharing

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    1. Thanks, Catriona. I'm glad it spoke to you. There is something so very special about ancient places.

      We were on the border between Mid and North Wales and on the drive back over the Berwyns could see Cader Idris in the distance.

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  5. Beautiful images :) I know the valley - it's not so far from here - but not the church. Is it generally open to be visited by the passer by?

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    1. Thanks, Annie. I was pleased with them, especially the interior shots taken by ambient light. Yes, you must be quite close. Do go there when the church is open. You'd love it. The opening hours are on the website:

      http://www.st-melangell.org.uk/English/Church/worship.htm

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  6. We went there once - in 1997. The inside of the church was locked when we visited - so thank you for posting all those lovely pictures. Such a beautiful place, we loved it.

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    1. Now the power has been restored I can get back to answering comments. :-) It's a shame you found the church locked when you visited, Molly, but I'm glad you enjoyed my pictures asa substitute.. There is now a resident Priest Guardian living just along the lane, so it would be very unfortunate if you found it locked these days. The opening hours are here:

      http://www.st-melangell.org.uk/English/Church/worship.htm

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  7. This post has been such a welcome cool and calm and beautiful moment in my otherwise hectic life at the moment, Perpetua. Your words and photographs are wonderful, evocative and transmit such a lovely peace.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Axxx

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    1. Glad to have provided an interlude of calm in your busy life, Annie. I'm so pleased my words and pictures managed to convey something of the wonderful atmosphere of this very special place. I really loved it and will definitely go back there one day.

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  8. Thank you for another wonderful post. Having been visiting Oswestry since my birth (my mother's hometown) I am surprised that I had not heard of this magical place.

    Just loved all the photos. Should I make it back to the U.K. again it will be a must-visit.

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    1. It was my pleasure, Susan. I didn't realise you have family roots in the Welsh Marches. It's such a wonderful area. Pennant Melangell is tiny and very much off the beaten track - certainly not somewhere you'd find accidentally, being at the end of a no-through road.

      Do put it on your must-visit list, just in case.

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    2. My mother was born at Oswestry and I know that I was taken there virtually from birth. One story I was told was that Mum took me back to Lingfield from Oswestry on the day of the first doodlebug.

      My grandfather was from the Ceiriog Valley and Welsh was his first language.

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    3. The Ceiriog Valley is another lovely area and is still very Welsh. An old friend of mine was vicar there for a number of years until she retired and she loved the place.

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  9. Beautiful post and even more beautiful pictures. What a lovely place you live in. Awful English I know, but then I am Welsh so what can you expect.

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    1. Sorry to be so long replying, Ray. We've just had a long power-cut without even a storm as an excuse.

      I'm so glad the post and images spoke to you. It is such a magical spot, like stepping outside time. Pennant Melangell is about 30 miles from us as the crow flies, but 50 by anything like main roads and the scenery is rather more North than Mid-Wales, with higher, steeper hills.

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    2. It's good to know your power is once again working. One of the drawbacks of your isolated homestead.

      The chapel is stunning, it has even in a computer picture an atmosphere of silence and serenity. Something to do with the pure white and the thickness of the stone.
      Gorgeous.

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    3. That's exactly how I felt about it. Ray, so I'm very pleased this has come across.

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  10. Hari OM
    Stunned me to silence.... 8~> YAM xx

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    1. Is that a first, Yam? :-) You would simply love its atmosphere of peace and prayer and the feeling of being set aside from the busy world outside.

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  11. Dear Perpetua - it is possible to sense the peace and the quiet and almost touch the history of the little shrine of Pennant Melangell and its pretty church. We are so fortunate that in this hectic world of ours there are still places that have managed to remain completely untouched by time.

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    1. Thanks, Rosemary, I'm glad I've managed to convey the otherworldy atmosphere of this hidden place. The hectic outside world feels very far away here and the past very near. Saint Melangell is the patron saint of hares, which appeals to me after our resident hare last year.

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  12. A lovely post.
    The peace and tranquility come across beautifully from your words and pictures. We haven't been to Wales for far too long.

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    1. Thanks, Jean, that's exactly what I was hoping to convey. Given everything that's happening ij your life I imagine it will be some time before you make it back to Wales, but it's still as lovely as ever and Pennant Melangell is a little gem.

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  13. What a beautiful, holy place, Perpetua. The peaceful quiet of the white walls and the ancient tomb are wonderful. I can feel the atmosphere by scrolling through your post. Just what I need today :)
    Wishing you a lovely weekend.

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    1. That's exactly what it is, Patricia, and I so appreciated my day there. With no through traffic and only occasional visitors, the peace was undisturbed all day. You would love it, especially as being in Wales it was relatively cool, even in June. :-)

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  14. I certainly felt peace and tranquility reading your post Perpetua. Your beautiful photos have captured it all. I loved reading about the legend of Melangell. Thankyou.
    Patricia x

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    1. I'm glad you felt it too, Patricia. With your love and knowledge of history you would really appreciate the story of this place. Melangell is one of two female Welsh saints who had a Latin version of their name, meaning they were revered in the wider church. The other is Winifred.

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  15. Thank you for this beautiful piece of quiet tranquility. All the comments so far show how we have all really enjoyed seeing the gentle peacefulness that this place brings. Your photos are beautiful, and the swallows at the church doorway are fabulous. They clearly felt at peace in order to pose so perfectly for you.Jx

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    1. Thanks, Janice. Describing an experience and an atmosphere isn't always easy, so I'm really glad my words and pictures spoke so clearly to you all. Watching the swallows was one of the highlights of the day. At first they swooped in and out, feeding their young in a nest up in the corner of the porch. After I stood still for long enough they came and perched on the porch gate for ages (taking a rest, I think) and they did the same when i was on the way out of the church. Thank goodness for modern cameras that don't click and whir!

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  16. What a peaceful post ... the atmosphere of the place simply oozes into your words. Lovely precious photos!

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    1. Thanks, Shirley. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I wrote the post as soon as I could after getting back, while the experience was still vivid in my mind. I wanted to capture it as much for myself as for my readers as memories fade so quickly sometimes.

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  17. This was fascinating. Every photo and every word made me feel like I was there too. I am always amazed at how old things are there, it's incredible and so awesome. You live in a beautiful, inspiring place and I really appreciate that you share it here.

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    1. Jennifer, I'm really glad it worked for you, as that was what I was hoping to do in this post. I'm afraid that over here in Europe we can tend to take our history for granted. We're so used to having ancient churches and old houses around that we often don't stop to appreciate just how wonderful it is to have buildings which link us with people from so long ago.

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  18. What a wonderful spot, so full of both beauty and history. I like that expression of the ancient Celts about a "thin place." I loved my time in Wales last year. I can see why you love living there! Oh, and I have to say as a North American how incredible it is to read about the "present church" that was built in the year 1200.

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    1. It's the combination of beauty and history which makes this place so magical, Kristie. I too love the expression "thin place" and it's being rediscovered as a way of describing places that seem to be more than just surface-deep. I'm sure we've all been in places like that. Next time you come to Wales (hint, hint) you must take time out to visit Pennant Melangell for yourself.

      As I said to Jennifer above, we Europeans can be a bit blasé about the age of many of our buildings, until we talk to people from countries with a shorter written history. The oldest bit of our very ordinary Welsh farmhouse predates the American Revolution by several decades and there are houses in our village which are a hundred or more years older than ours. Then we come to the churches....

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  19. Perpetua, loved this so much! What a wonderful place to go to on a retreat... or anytime. And I too have never heard the Celt's expression *a thin place* - but it definitely fits. Loved the old church, the trees, stones, graveyard, etc. Have definitely put this on my *bucket list* if the chance to return to Wales ever comes up...

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    1. I'm so pleased you liked it, Rian. We were only there for a day, but it would be the prefect place for a longer retreat if the facilities were available. I find the term "a thin place" so expressive and evocative and it fits Pennant Melangell perfectly. Do put it on your list - it's worth the effort of getting there.

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  20. Just beautiful. Thank you for sharing it with us: what a blessed spot. I can feel how 'thin' it is just from your photos and descriptions. Incidentally I know of several people here in Perthshire who still use that expression to describe such places: in fact I think I have come to use it myself, as it is so 'right'.

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    1. Thanks, DB. It's the kind of place I'm sure you would love, with its tranquil beauty and profound sense of both history and otherness. How interesting that you know of people still using the expression 'thin place' in ordinary conversation. I see it quite often in writings about places of spiritual significance, but have rarely heard it in conversation. That may change as I start to use it more myself...

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  21. My gratitude, Perpetua, for this uplifting journey you have taken me on. While I cannot get away right now to such a place of peace and solitude, to have been able to take in your words and enjoy your photos has given me the measure of quietude that is much appreciated. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you for coming along with me, Penny, even if only in spirit. I'm sure you must have similar places of special significance, even if it isn't always easy to find time to get away to visit them. Isn't it wonderful that other bloggers can give us these glimpses when we can't quite find them for ourselves?

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  22. What wonderful photographs, Perpetua. The one of the whitewashed shrine reminds me of the stark simplicity of those many tiny Greek churches, perched on remote mountain tops, but loved and cared for by their scattered communities. Their cool calm interiors are in complete contrast to the baking heat and dazzling sun outside - a metaphor there, I think.

    Spindrift51

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    1. Lovely to see you, Spindrift, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I was pleased with the photos as taking them has been difficult for years until I got my cataract done and now I seem to be finding my eye again. As you know I've never been to Greece, so your comparison is fascinating. Not much baking heat in Pennant Melangell, but the sense of otherness in this small, austere space is, I think, the same as what you describe.

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  23. It's a wonderful expression 'a thin place' and so special when you visit one :-) What a super place, beautiful and 'still' in the right way.

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    1. Isn't it marvellously expressive? It's the perfect way to sum up this wonderful site. I imagine that in your ancient landscape you've come across a number of thin places with the same out-of-time stillness and beauty.

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  24. Fortunate indeed, Perpetua! I can almost feel the hush and calm and serenity and prayer! Gorgeous landscape, to be sure, but that stone gate and entry made from the original stones is just fantastic! I would drink in that kind of retreat. I'm so glad you had the opportunity. I also love that phrase 'a thin place' and marvel that God has somehow given that blessing of opportunity, from time to precious time, even in the chaos of where I live. LOL! But I think I could get there a little quicker in the Welsh countryside. :-)

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    1. I count my blessings every day, Debra. Wales is very beautiful and I'm sure you would love it. The original shrine stones were in fact removed from the stone gate and the church walls in order that the shrine could be rebuilt, but you'd never guess that now. The restoration work has been done very sensitively indeed and all towards the end of the last century. Before that the church was in a very poor state.

      You really don't have to journey to remote Welsh valleys to find thin places. They can exist in all sorts of locations. A little Spanish mission church or a quiet, contemplative garden can also be very thin places if we open ourselves to their atmosphere.

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  25. I'm sure you were refreshed and renewed by your M.U. quiet day set apart in this ancient and holy 'thin place' in a remote valley. The journey there along the track and then back home through the countryside must also have been uplifting. Thank you for sharing your prayer space with us and I noticed the beautiful kneeler - a peaceful atmosphere there.

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    1. It was wonderful, Linda, and I felt so much better for it. The journey there and back, a round trip of at least 80 miles, was through some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable, but unfortunately I wasn't driving so couldn't stop to take photos. The little apse has a wonderfully prayerful atmosphere and the kneeler of course shows Melangell's hare.

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  26. Dear Perpetua, this is a lovely post. Your description of the feelings you experienced at the shrine and in the church and the words by T. S. Eliot that you quoted: "prayer has been valid" so reminded me of how I feel when I enter the choir chapel at the convent where I lived for 8 1/2 years and where I went to college for 4 years.

    It is in the choir chapel that the nuns pray the Divine Office and have now for 150 years. There is truly a sense there of "prayer that is valid." And often while I was in the convent and praying there, I thought, not of the pilgrims as you did, but of all those dedicated women from 1863 on who brought to the Office only themselves. They let go of all that worried and stressed them as they united their voices to pray the Office.

    It was that part of the convent that first attracted me back in 1957 when, as a junior in college there, I decided to ask if the community would accept me as a postulant. I wanted to pray with others and unite myself in Oneness with them.

    And when I visited England back in 1976 I can remember going to the church and the graveyard where Harold is buried--some time after his death at Hastings. I felt such a sense of history there. Of the arc of our being. Of being part of all humankind.

    Thanks so much for sharing your day. It's brought back to me so many memories and so many emotions. Peace.

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post, Dee, and that it brought back so many good and worthwhile memories for you. There is something so very special about a place that has been prayed in for many years. Whether it's a small country church, a convent chapel or a great cathedral, in each case it's as though the stones have been soaked in prayer and the memory of that prayer remains even when the people are long gone.

      Another church where I'm very aware if this is the lovely parish church where I was curate for many years. Every time I go in I feel the history of the place and am very aware of all the people who had prayed and worshipped there, or been baptised, married or buried there, some of them by me.

      I think we are very blessed that there are so many places like this.

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  27. I think the Berwyn valleys are perhaps the most underestimated in Wales. I love the drive over the top to Bala, the blind valley to the left, the waterfall cascade on the mountainside

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    1. I think you're right, Mark. Somehow they are off the beaten track and not visited as they deserve. We made a circular tour, coming into the Tanat valley from Llynclys on the Welshpool - Oswestry road, and then driving home over the Berwyns to Bala and along to Dolgellau, then over Dinas Mawddwy back into Powys. The weather was good and if I'd been the driver I’m afraid I’d have been stopping every few minutes to take photos. Wales is wonderful.

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  28. Oh dear, the call to go west which is always pretty strong got very much stronger reading this. There is magic in Wales, I'm certain, I've felt it many times and it comes through even off the screen reading this (I'm not mad honest!). Thank you for putting together such a serene and sensitive post, the atmosphere has moved me. Now I'm going to be nagging the Other Half about retiring to Wales yet again!

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    1. Apologies, Anny. I didn't mean to stir up your longing to move to Wales yet more. I do hope the retirement plan comes to fruition one day.

      Yes, I think there is magic in Wales. It's such an old country and there are so many places where its history comes through very strongly. You would love Pennant Melangell, both the church and the setting. It really is a place out of time and the atmosphere of peace is tangible.

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  29. "A thin place" - such a perfect concept that I have experienced but never heard described before.

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    1. |t's good to be able to put a name to it, isn't it? I love the expression and have experienced several thin places.

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  30. How absolutely beautiful. I love to think of a 'thin place'. I think I've been to one or two places like that - on Cape Breton, and once in Denmark.

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I welcome your comments and will always try to respond to them. Thank you for reading.