Most people know that the patron saint of Wales is St David, who is honoured every year on St David’s Day, 1st March. But did you know that a tiny island off the Snowdonia coast was so spiritually important, three pilgrimages to it were the equivalent of one to Rome?
How did a tiny island off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, Snowdonia, become so venerated by the Church that pilgrims flocked to it from all over Britain, because three pilgrimages there were the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Rome?
It’s not so much the island itself that was so spiritually enriching (although, its peacefulness and beauty, looking west to the sunset, provides the perfect environment for contemplation); rather, it’s what was said to be buried there that made it so important: namely, the bodies of twenty thousand saints.
If you’ve ever visited Enlli – or Bardsey, as it’s known in English – or even seen it on a map, you’ll probably struggle to believe the island is large enough to contain such a vast number of graves. However, faith isn’t about what you can see with your eyes, and it was faith, not ‘logic’, that held Enlli in such high esteem during its heyday as a place of pilgrimage.
During that time pilgrims flocked in their thousands to Enlli, and the route they took is today a waymarked 130-mile walking trail, linked by ancient churches dedicated to 6th and 7th century saints. Starting at Holywell, the Pilgrim’s Way leads modern-day pilgrims through woodlands and villages, over rivers, and along coastal paths, through some of the most picturesque countryside you could wish to see.
From Holywell the route takes you past St Asaph and down through the Conwy Valley past Llanrwst, before heading north again to Penmaenmawr, Llanfairfechan and Bangor. Along this part of the route you can stop off to see the standing stones at Penmaenmawr and pay a visit to Bangor Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in continuous use in Britain.
The path then takes you over Bangor Mountain and eventually to Llanberis, where if you fancy a break from walking there are plenty of attractions to enjoy, including the National Slate Museum and Electric Mountain. If you still have some energy left after this leg of the journey, you might want to walk up Snowdon – but if you don’t, you could always take the train!
From Llanberis the Pilgrim’s Way goes through Waunfawr and Penygroes, finally reaching one of the most important stops and meeting places for pilgrims of old – Clynnog Fawr. This is a small village with an unusually large church – testament to the village’s importance to pilgrims, and to their generosity in making donations towards the upkeep of the church. The church – dedicated to St Beuno, who performed several miracles which on at least two occasions involved reviving decapitated women – has been there in some form or another since the early 7th century. After being burnt by the Vikings and later by the Normans, the church was rebuilt in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and this is the building you’ll see when you visit – although foundations of much earlier buildings have been found beneath the present church. St Beuno’s houses a fascinating exhibition about the pilgrims and Clynnog Fawr’s role in pilgrimages to Enlli, so it’s really worth stopping to see this and the other interesting features and artefacts at the church, including the 10th century sundial in the churchyard; Maen Beuno (a stone said to bear the imprints of St Beuno’s fingers); and Cyff Beuno (an ancient wooden chest for collecting alms, carved out of a single piece of ash). Not far from the church there is also an ancient spring, Ffynnon Beuno or Beuno’s Well, said to have appeared after one of Beuno’s miracles took place. The well is enclosed by old stone walls and there are steps around the water where you can sit and enjoy a well-earned break after so much walking.
After Clynnog Fawr the Pilgrim’s Way takes you to Trefor, an old quarrying village lying away from the main road. Trefor has two beaches, one of which has a small harbour and slipway (worth noting if you’d like to make a return visit with a boat some day). The other beach, West End, is much wilder and more deserted, even at the height of summer – ideal if you like to have a beach to yourself.
The Trefor to Nefyn stretch of the route can be taken either inland or around the coast. Be aware, though – the inland route takes you over mountainous terrain! Whichever way you choose you’ll encounter Nant Gwrtheyrn along the way, so make sure you pop in for a visit, learn a little about the local folklore and history, refresh yourself at the cafe and perhaps even book yourself in for a residential Welsh language course.
After Nefyn the path takes you via Tudweiliog and Porth Oer (Whistling Sands) to your eventual destination, the beautiful ancient village of Aberdaron. Here you can enjoy a well-earned rest at a historic cafe or inn, before exploring the village, the coast and the beautiful surroundings. The question is, now you’ve arrived at Aberdaron are you going to go the whole hog and take a boat trip across the Bardsey Sound to Enlli? Having got this far it would be a shame not to, as the island is absolutely beautiful and very much worth exploring. With so much fascinating history – not to mention the equally fascinating folklore – attached to the island, you’ll kick yourself if you miss the opportunity to visit Barsey Island after walking even just one section of the Pilgrim’s Way!