§ CHAPTER SIX
Tacitus and Agricola—Din Lligwy—ancestors—Llan names—Penmon Priory—uninvited travellers—Menai and Telford—Snowdon—Dinas Emrys—pain and rain—creepy farm—Llangybi church—Llanaelhaern—saints and patrons—Home of the Giants—meaning of Gwynedd—Garn Boduan—Llangian—Latin, priests and wandering saints—Meli medici fili martini—Aberdaron—Colin Evans—Island of Currents—King of Bardsey
ASIDE FROM the fact that my great-grandfather Alf Richmond died in a boating accident off Cemaes Bay in 1895, my knowledge of Anglesey’s history is limited to a line in Bede, a couple of entries in the Annales Cambriae and a vague idea that the Romans believed it to be an Island of Druids. It inhabits an exotic corner of the imagination, fortified by the Menai Strait and cut off from the rest of the world, as Sicily is from Italy or as Britain is from Europe. Its reputation as a bastion of Welsh identity gives one, perhaps, the sense that Anglo-Saxons are not welcome; that this ancient and magical land of mists and wizards, defended by fierce tidal races, wishes to keep itself to itself.
The gossipy Roman historian Tacitus, whose father-in-law Agricola commanded a campaign of conquest in Britain during the late first century, records that when confronted with the Menai Strait and with no fleet at hand, the general hand-picked troops trained in specialist assault and had them swim across to the island of Môn.54 The enemy, he says, were so awestruck by the sight of swarms of amphibious semi-clad soldiers that they lost their heads and surrendered their island fortress without resistance.
We had seen the lights of Holyhead, one night, from the helm of Eda Frandsen, the Dublin ferries coming and going ahead of us in a blaze of lights. Now, in the second half of August 2014, Sarah and I crossed Thomas Telford’s stupendous Menai Bridge on a small local bus—the twin arches that pierce the bridge’s superstructure so narrow that there was barely more than a couple of inches’ clearance on either side—and found ourselves deposited at a crossroads near the village of Moelfre on the island’s north-east coast. I wanted to start my journey among the Britons at a suitably evocative spot: the ruins of a stone-built native village called Din Lligwy. In August the back lanes of Anglesey’s rolling hills are choked with holiday traffic: refugees from the bustle of Manchester and Liverpool who succeed annually in bringing city-centre traffic chaos with them. The campsites are more like car and caravan rallies, with armies of marshals, electronic gates and myriad notices forbidding this and that. We poor pilgrims on foot were as invisible as sewer rats.
We found Din Lligwy hidden in a copse of trees, like some sacred grove, on a small limestone rise not far from the site of a medieval chapel now inhabited only by cows and crows. Din Lligwy must have been the settlement of an elite family: the massive neatness of the stone foundations which survive tell of wealth and architectural pretension; the trapezoidal curtain wall, of privacy; the setting, of a deep sense of belonging in the landscape. The site, covering perhaps an acre internally, may have been inhabited since the Iron Age: two houses are perfectly circular in the pure native tradition of the British West, but the long rectangular buildings which nestle against the inside walls are of a strikingly different tradition: more like miniature Roman granaries than anything you would find in a mainland British village. One wonders if the inhabitants had heard of, or seen, a Roman provincial villa and remodelled their farmstead on a suitably grandiose scale. The early twentieth-century excavators recovered pottery of the third and fourth centuries; and in the building close to the entrance they found evidence of ironworking. Curiously, and sufficient to get the Early Medieval archaeologist’s nose twitching, many of the pottery sherds showed signs of having been repaired with iron wire. Those who could afford Roman kitchen pots and tableware could generally afford to replace them with new; either this rich family had fallen on hard times in the fourth century or the settlement survived beyond the end of the Empire, when the pottery industries of Roman Britain collapsed and even the wealthy were forced to make do and mend; shades of wartime Britain in the Blitz.
Strolling among the ruins of this lost race, I was struck forcibly by the sight of the door pillars flanking the entrances to the houses. If I had seen them standing alone in a field I would have had no hesitation in identifying them as memorials to the prehistoric dead or remnants of stone circles: here was the familiar asymmetrical, broken-shouldered, figurative form that captures the spirit of the ancestor, turned to stone like some troll at sunrise. Wooden round houses may have boasted carved icons or totems on either side of the porch to protect those inside, to make the broken circle whole and venerate family ancestors, but we never find them because they would long since have rotted. Did these people, perhaps in response to changing times, reinforce their ties to the old native religion, of shaman and ancestral patron, by creating a living monument in stone, the material of permanence and memory? It is a process, identified across the Early Medieval world and described by the archaeologist Sophie Hueglin as ‘petrification’, the physical expression of a profound need and desire for solidity, certainty, intransience in a transient world. Materially this is reflected in the transition from wood to stone in memorial and elite buildings; it is paralleled by developments in recording time, history and identity from oral to written forms. At Ironbridge a similar transition, from wood and stone to iron, is equally evocative.
Close to Din Lligwy lies a Neolithic chambered tomb whose importance to earlier settlers might still have resonated with these Romanised Britons. Another thought occurred: was this seeming hybrid of native and Roman architecture a sign, frozen in time, of the tensions between indigenous and Roman cultures being played out, consciously or subconsciously, in the geography and space of a wealthy farmstead—profoundly sensible to its past but with an eye on modern trends?
I experienced a powerful sense of this same cultural tension when I once stayed for a couple of days in Window Rock, the tribal capital of the Navajo nation high up on the Mogollon plateau of north-eastern Arizona. The beautiful and impressive Nation Council building is circular, echoing the form of the native hogan55 but on a massive scale, built with giant pine beams radiating from the roof peak and semi-dressed stone walls whose plastered interior is painted with a cyclical mural history of its people. The space is both sacred and secular. The architecture carries echoes of a lost race, the Anasazi, who built marvellous drystone-walled towns with exquisite precision and delicacy among the mesas and canyons of that high country during Europe’s Middle Ages. My hosts, Skip and Elaine Baker—oddly enough neither of them was Navajo; they were respectively Crow and Blackfoot—lived in a very ordinary house; their kids watched Sesame Street and attended grade school; they ate burgers and drank Coors Lite when they could smuggle it onto the reservation, and drove a pickup. Their census names were English (they had other, native names not to be shared) and when I spoke with them about their identity they reacted as if the convenient paraphernalia of modern capitalist America might easily be cast off like snakeskin: ‘when you Anglos go away we won’t miss you’. I remember Skip grinning when he said that. Out there they call it the Apache smile.
They may be deluding themselves. It’s hard to shake off an empire when it builds you nice roads and delivers water and beer on tap. The difference, I suspect, is that when the Romans conquered a people and gave them citizenship of their empire, they meant it: a barbarian might become emperor. Roman Britain was not a reservation. I cannot imagine a Navajo sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office of the White House. If it ever happened, one suspects the presidential face would be wearing an Apache smile.
If Din Lligwy is now deserted and long abandoned, Moelfre was in party mode when we strolled down to the village for an evening meal. They had just commissioned a new lifeboat which sat out in the bay, bright orange and blue, riding complacently at anchor on a light swell; ashore the beer flowed, music blared out and, in the warm evening light, locals and visitors spilled onto road, beach and quayside in a cheery assembly of colour and laughter with RNLI ensigns and bunting adorning the seafront houses. It might have been Cornwall; or Bute, except that here the native language is spoken universally. Blackberries ripening in the hedges, and a blanket of low cloud carried in on a sea breeze, were signals of autumn’s approach; but it was still warm. We retired to our tent surrounded by the invisible inhabitants of motorhome and caravan, all busy watching television in case they missed anything.
Our first full day’s walking followed the coastal path towards the south-east corner of Anglesey. At one point, we made our way inland along generously hedged winding lanes in the vain hope of finding a Dark Age settlement at Pant y Saer—consumed by rabid thorny undergrowth and completely invisible—which is supposed to be another enclosed settlement like Din Lligwy but with the additional Dark Age wow factor of a sixth-century penannular brooch retrieved during excavations. The diversion was not entirely pointless, for at one point we encountered a young red squirrel on the road, as curious as he was scared. Past the village of Benllech, we stopped for refreshment at a pub on the edge of Red Wharf Bay, a great sandy inlet facing the distant Cumbrian mountains. The tide was so far out that a thin line of white surf made our horizon. Despite the temptation to cut a mile or so off the day’s journey, we decided to skirt the bay rather than risk impassable mud or uncrossable channels. Besides, it was a fine afternoon. South of the bay we climbed a steep wooded slope and found ourselves in the middle of a disorienting plantation whose rides and trails did not seem to match the map. I wanted to look at a patch of relict fields whose shape from the air suggested they were ancient; but we couldn’t find them and had to take our chances at several forks in the timber road. Not for the first time I mused on the navigator’s reliance on an open landscape. Still, we came out more or less where we wanted, on the moors above the village of Llandonna at about 550 feet, so that we got a lovely view back across the bay: orange sand against green sea and blue sky, a Mark Rothko abstract, a landscape without apparent narrative, only form, colour and texture. The open moors were rocky, not much good for grazing anything except sheep and the odd shabby-looking pony fenced in by thin, woolly strands of wire.
Llandonna was our first bona-fide Early Medieval Christian site—not that there was much to see in this dowdy cluster of houses, apart from a radio mast sticking out of the hilltop like a leafless Christmas tree. It’s the name that gives the game away. Llan is that early Welsh word for a church enclosure, often circular. A cursory look at such names on the map of the island showed that there had once been at least thirty, probably more, sites with early churches. This was a well-settled, fertile and productive land right through the Iron Age and Roman periods and into the Early Medieval. The north-eastern part of Anglesey is open, broken country, of small valleys, exposed coast and blustery moors, tamed by farmers over the last millennium. South and west there is lower, more domesticated land and a fertile zone, easily cultivated and with rich pastures.
Churches need land to support them; but historians suspect that they were not often given the best land for their foundations; that perhaps they tended to be offered more marginal sites, more easily lost from the royal or lordly fisc, as if to say: sure, have some land—make of this rough patch what you will. In that way, the sweated labour of monk and nun, lay brother and sister, may have been deployed in a more or less conscious way either to colonise the wastes and what little wildwood may have survived, or to bring back into cultivation lands that had been neglected through the death of a lord, through famine and climatic deterioration or conflict. On Anglesey, early church names dominate the less productive land, fringing, as they seem to do elsewhere, the fertile corelands of their kingdoms.
The main Roman presence on the island, courtesy of Agricola, was the fort at Caer Gybi on Holy Island, close to Holyhead. St Cybi was the name of a Cornish holy man and prolific monastic entrepreneur to whom the fort was given in the sixth century to found a royal monastery. His patron, Maelgwyn or Maglocunos, was the nominally Christian king of Gwynedd at the time when Gildas vented his ire against five British tyrants. Maelgwyn was his ‘Dragon of the Isle’, last in the list but first in evil, strong in arms but stronger in what destroys the soul, killer and usurper of his uncle before apparently retiring to the monastic life, only to re-emerge more powerful than before. A formidable king, then; and well qualified as a Dark Age warlord and patron. Gildas must have been gratified that Maelgwyn is said to have died in the great plague of the 540s, the European pandemic that seems finally to have ended the trade in Eastern Mediterranean goods to the Atlantic west. From Gildas’s point of view it would have seemed a divine punishment.
If St Cybi became the royal holy man of West Mon, he had a contemporary counterpart in the east. That evening, after we pitched wearily at a campsite close to another Llan-named village, Llangoed, I walked out towards the easterly extreme of the island at Penmon Point where magnificent views reach south across the strait to the Snowdonia massif and east to the peninsula on which Llandudno sits. That popular tourist destination, once served by daily summer steamers from Liverpool, was the foundation of St Tudno; but long before and after him it was known for its proximity to the limestone headland known as the Great Orme, Wales’s copper mountain. Snowdon sat sulking beneath heavy grey cloud; the verdigris waters of the strait were choppy but the lighting was sublime.
Just inland from Penmon Point is Penmon Priory, a medieval Augustinian abbey, largely intact, which houses some fine pre-Conquest crosses. To my amazement the priory church was still open, just. Anxious not to miss anything, I hurried round it, camera in hand; not the quietly contemplative visit I had hoped for. One should never rush an ancient church; they are places of stillness and silence where time ought by rights to run a little slower than in the outside world. Besides, only at slow pace do you notice what is to be noticed, the little details that make a place special, and which are all the more gratifying to discover for oneself, rather than have them pointed out by guidebook or notice. In addition to the crosses, I had time to register that the church was cruciform in shape with a central tower and pyramid spire; that the crossing arch was dog-tooth Norman, its supporting pillars decorated with grotesque Adam and Eve caricatures. Outside I found a small, tranquil reed-fronded pond and beyond it the setting of an ancient holy well whose waters are dark, clear and still. The original church on the site seems to have been founded by a friend of Cybi, St Seiriol. A son of a king, like Cybi, he evidently found life at Penmon too public and retired, in the manner of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, to a desert place. A quarter of a mile off the point lies a teardrop-shaped island that has variously been known as Glannauc, Ynys Seiriol, Priestholm, Ynys Lannog and Puffin Island. In its third incarnation, some three generations after Seiriol, it became a place of sanctuary for a refugee king, none other than Cadwallon, whose Northumbrian antagonist and former foster-brother King Edwin had hunted him down as he himself had been hunted in exile. Fatally, Edwin supposed that Cadwallon’s exile here was permanent; that it would reduce him sufficiently to be able to ignore him as a potential military threat. In 633 Cadwallon allied with Penda of Mercia to exact his revenge, slew Edwin at the battle of Hæthfelth and went on to ravage the Northumbrian heartlands before himself being killed by the atheling Oswald of Bernicia.
ST SEIRIOL’S WELL
It was late in the day; after a couple of brisk showers the skies cleared and a magnificent sunset played its hand. I climbed to the top of the hill to get a view of Priestholm, with the priory church below and before me like a sentinel overlooking the strait. Among emerald pastures soaked in golden yellow light lay the scattered ruins of settlements, as there are everywhere on Anglesey. They are conveniently labelled ‘native’; few have been excavated properly, and it’s hard to say if their very obviously Iron Age affinities (the remains of circular houses) confine them to the prehistoric period or if they may have continued as the vernacular architecture of the island right into the Early Medieval period. The tiny villages and hamlets that line the back lanes are composed of neat, low, whitewashed cottages with small square windows, slate roofs and painted doors. Many of these were once the cottages of fisherman, and you still see coils of rope and the odd lobster creel hung up on a gable end or next to a porch. Where they are exposed to westerlies, often there is a hardy hawthorn or crabapple tree in a garden hedge, bent to the wind.
The reliability of those prevailing westerlies has always been a useful marker for the traveller; more constant in its footprint than a sun beneath cloud, a new moon or the northern star at midday. I had been pondering for some time how Dark Age travellers made their way through strange landscapes. I had already seen how the names of significant places might have offered clues. Climbing a prominent hill has always been a good way to gauge the lie of the land. In Dorset I had found that the hollow lanes of old route ways, like lines on the tube map, disorient and lead the traveller astray, giving the land a secretive, arcane and frustratingly distorted shape in the mind. It had been my plan on this journey that, at a suitable point, I would discard my maps and walk as it were au naturel, falling back on simple navigation methods, an innate sense of direction and knowing that, at times, I would get lost. But I hoped to work out how ancient travellers negotiated these lands, or at least to experience it second-hand. Sarah and I planned to climb Snowdon, and then part—she had a date with Loch Lomond and her wetsuit; I was aiming for the medieval pilgrimage site on Bardsey Island off the end of the Llŷn peninsula, a hundred odd miles away. After Snowdon, I told myself… after Snowdon. Meanwhile, I must decode the significant place names of north Wales: the Pens, Tys, Uchafs, Coeds, the Hlafod, the Llys and the Llan. I have a reasonable, if cautious, handle on English place names. Gaelic is beyond all ken; Welsh was enough to make the head spin. Nevertheless, the linguistic rules by which names change through time and warp from their original are well understood, if dangerous territory.
On the next day, during our progress south and west back towards the Menai Bridge, Sarah and I passed through an undistinguished village called Llandegfan (another early church site, foundation of St Tegfan, but no sign of him in suburban crescent or cul de sac). There was an air of what I can only call petitbourgeois self-consciousness (pelargoniums and brutalised rose bushes against bare soil; trim lawns; block-paved drives; sensible cars). Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a sticker on a lamp post, which bore the imprimatur of Cyngor Sir Ynys Mon (Anglesey County Council) and the Heddlu (Welsh Police) and which said:
The convenient English translation on the opposite half said:
Beneath was a bilingual note, in smaller print, of which the English vernacular version was: ‘Please leave and do not return’. The warning to uninvited traders got me thinking about how the stranger or newcomer to a place negotiates an unfamiliar land, finds the inside track; I thought about it all the way to the foot of Snowdon, all the way to the top and down the other side, by which time I had figured out how Dark Age travellers managed to navigate through an unknown landscape.
We had breakfasted in Beaumaris, that Edwardian—Edward I, that is—stamp of the colonial boot. It looked very pretty but still, the historian in me felt uncomfortable: in Edward’s new settlement only English and Norman-French residents had civic rights and the native Welsh of Beaumaris were largely disqualified from holding any civic office. I was disturbed to find a graffito on the wall of the loo in the café, to the effect that the Welsh are all illegitimate—and worse. I was angry. I tried to wash it off or wipe it away with a paper towel, but it had been scrawled with a permanent marker. Like Edward’s castles. Onwards, in any case: to the bridge and a chance to walk across it, to look down on the whole length of the strait, to marvel at Telford’s brilliance (he built it as early as 1826, before the Brunels started to dig their tunnels and plot their railways; before the Stephensons constructed Rocket, and only just after the opening of the Stockton–Darlington railway) and to ponder what a permanent link does to an island race. Hamish Haswell-Smith, the champion of Scottish islands, removed Skye from the new edition of his magisterial guide to Scotland’s islands after the bridge was built across Kyle Akin from Kyle of Lochalsh. Some folk don’t like their island status taken from them. The early monks would have sympathised.
On the south side of the bridge Sarah and I parted temporarily: she to fetch the car we had left in Bangor; me to walk on to a campsite rendezvous with her at the head of Llŷn Padarn, St Padarn’s lake, half a dozen miles to the south of the Strait. Padarn was another contemporary of Maelgwyn, king of Gwynedd; a roving churchman and founder of monasteries, supposedly a Breton from Armorica, to where a large number of British refugees are said to have fled from civil war and Anglo-Saxon invasion. It seemed impossible to avoid the saintly step of some early holy man in this land. The giants were there too: sky-high electricity pylons ferrying massive voltages from coastal power stations into and across the mountains, steel skeletons swaggering through glen and cwm, effortlessly fording river and straddling high pass, each pair looking like a monstrous tug of war between rivals for domination over the land. But this is a richly diverse landscape, too, full of small farms, hilltop forts and cairns, streams that drain glacial lakes and half-abandoned tiny cellular fields that must go back to a time when pioneer farmers enclosed what they could cultivate or cut in a year, expanding and contracting as the whim of fate and the ancestors dictated. This is a much quarried landscape: the scars are there for all time; and one curious by-product (for me) of the slate industry is its use for fencing: often I saw a field enclosed by long lines of vertical slates wired together. There are apparently impoverished villages and hamlets of small, ungenerous cottages, evidently affiliated to now defunct industries and looking as though they needed rescuing from whatever fate distant governments had invented for them. From poor villages, back lanes, power lines and scrapyards the land re-dressed itself in upland fatigues: narrow footbridges across waterfalls; ramshackle farmyards with geese and chickens and rusting machinery, bailer twine holding everything together; through long-abandoned fields thick with new rowan and field maple, bramble and bracken thicket, down rocky paths between exposed crags and into the shade of the mountains. All afternoon the air cooled.
Having successfully rendezvoused at the head of Llŷn Padarn, that evening Sarah and I walked beside the banks of the Afon Rhythallt along the line of an old industrial railway, to a small village pub where we ate well in a buzz of bilingual conversation. I remember, many years ago, harbouring the unworthy thought that the revived Welsh interest in their language was a convenient tool for making the English, the Lloegr, feel unwelcome and stupid, and therefore as discouraging of intercultural friendship as the English refusal to learn foreign languages. This time my encounter with yr iaith Gymraeg prompted overwhelmingly positive thoughts. In this part of Wales, at any rate, use of the indigenous language feels completely natural, everyone is effortlessly bilingual and equally happy to engage with linguistically impoverished monoglots like myself and Sarah. I have often thought that one should not be too hard on the English for their poor command of languages: after all, English is the second language of many nations, a global lingua franca. Which is the most natural second language for the English to learn: French? German? Spanish perhaps? Or—if our choice is governed by the size of linguistic populations or the future prospects of our graduates in a globalised economy—Mandarin, Russian or Hindi? After this trip I feel I know the answer. The English should all learn Welsh at school—it is, after all, the linguistic descendant of the native tongue of these islands, beautiful to listen to and rich in lore and poetic tradition. And the Scots should probably learn Gaelic. Wales has pulled off a remarkable feat in resurrecting its language, in giving it currency and absolute relevance.
Snowdon’s peak was hard won. We took the long ridge route from our camping pitch at Cwm y Glo, where the view along the lake towards Llanberis—an egg-white and lapis sky poached in blue-black peaty water, the perfect sensuous U of the valley sides and Snowdon magnificently brooding on its alpine throne—made you want to put it in a jar and take it home. The marked path was invisible: it was all yellow gorse and purple heathery bog, with unsuspected ankle-breaking potholes; and the consoling prospect of cairn, burnt mound and hut circle that had lured us (or me) up there could not be seen beneath the blanket. As we reached our first viewpoint just below Cefn Du, a raw scar of abandoned quarry, and made a short descent to the trail above Llanberis (St Peris: sixth century), we saw our first trekkers. I had hardly seen any serious walkers all year and had begun to fear that we were a dying breed. But Snowdon is Britain’s busiest mountain. Ahead and to our left the unmistakable chug of a steam train betrayed the line of the rack-and-pinion railway that takes reluctant climbers all the way to the summit in relative comfort. We kept to the long, round-about route of Maesgwyn and the Snowdon Ranger path, undemanding until the last section of zig-zags that drags you up the side of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu and onto the north ridge of Bwlch Glas. Here it was like being in the Lakes on a bank holiday, almost queuing to get to the top and surrounded by yapping or panting dogs. With a full rucksack, despite being in pretty good shape after a year of walking, I was glad to get to the top, even if the dizzying view came into focus only rarely from that clouded, misty height. Yr Wyddfa, the great tumulus, in ancient lore the tomb of a giant called Rhitta Gawr, is the mythical heart of the land of the Britons, the Eryriof the Historia Brittonum where the embattled tyrant Vortigern fled from his persecutors.
I have had few more surreal experiences than walking, glasses all steamed up and feeling somewhat overdressed and overequipped, into Hlafod Eryri, the modern café which sits just below the summit of the mountain at about three and a half thousand feet. It was standing room only, fuggy with the breath and sweat of walkers all hugger-mugger with trippers wearing T-shirts. We managed to get a sausage roll and a cup of hot chocolate and stood, semi-dazed, wondering at this overwhelming congregation of humanity in a wild and desolate island palace in the clouds. What the ancestors think is not clear. A small, fundamentalist part of me thinks that taking a railway up to the top of a mountain to a café is somehow disrespectful to the spirits of the place; but I also think it wonderful that the wheelchair-bound and the semi-ambulant can stand or sit on top of the world and share in the majesty of the view.
Here Sarah and I went our separate ways. She returned to the campsite and the car by the more straightforward route to Llanberis. I took the south-west ridge, Bwlch Main, a narrow, sometimes steep, rocky path that fell away dramatically on both sides and which in winter and dense fog must be deadly treacherous; but I was soon below the cloud, and the high country of the Snowdon range opened out ahead: tumbling streams and concave slopes, distant green valleys mottled by cloud and sun; sheepfolds, grey ridges and peaks, glacial lakes steeped in Arthurian legend (Excalibur lies at the bottom of one of them, supposedly). I still had a long walk ahead of me, so I kept up a good pace, easy enough with the big pack propelling me downwards into Cwm Llan. I stopped once or twice to take pictures, munch on an apple or oatcake with a mouthful of cheese. The descent had been exhilarating; now the quiet of the cwm, the jostling of soft waters in the burn and the occasional raking call of a raven lent the afternoon a timeless quality. Once, I followed the tempting line of an old mineral railway, hoping it would bring me out onto an easier path. It ended in a precipitous drop where an incline once transported slate down into the cwm below. I backtracked and came onto the marked path high above a sheepfold and small abandoned farm, below which a cataract tumbled towards the cwm of Glaslyn, the ‘black pool’. Now I came into a land of veteran broadleaf woods, scrub birch and planted spruce. Instead of following the old mule trail down into the cwm direct, I tracked the contour round to the south-west, through bracken and sheep pen, splashy bog and craggy cleft, past another roofless old farmstead and shieling until, now level with the hills across the valley, I saw a densely wooded hump ahead of me which could only be Dinas Emrys, the fortress of Ambrosius Aurelianus. By now I had left all other walkers behind.
Fifteen hundred years ago Dinas Emrys would have paraded its power and wealth with banner, rampart and glittering spear; smoke would have curled lazily from the fires of a kingly hall; the sound of guards and lookouts would have barked, echoing across the valley; perhaps a bard might have been heard distantly, praising his lord in poetry and strumming his harp. Ambrosius and Vortigern are as ephemeral as Arthur, their names woven into countless legends of civil wars among the British chieftains of the fifth century, and of the defence against invading Saes or Saxons. While all three men appear in the semi-historical sections of the Historia Brittonum, Ambrosius is one of the very few ‘real’ people (the five tyrants aside) to be named by Gildas. Gildas says that he was the military leader who emerged among the Britons in the wake of the first wave of Germanic attacks, after the ‘cruel plunderers’ had gone home. He is described as a Roman gentleman, whose parents had ‘worn the purple’ (that is to say, they had held imperial rank) and who had been killed in the conflict. He won great victories against ‘the enemy’. It is never entirely clear whether the most serious conflicts of the fifth century were internecine or as a result of federate armies under Germanic warlords turning against their British sponsors. They had, we are told in the Kentish Chronicle section of the Historia Brittonum, been brought to Britain to protect the island from Picts or Scots. But they were evidently first stationed to guard cross-Channel trade with Gaul. The Britons’ ‘proud tyrant’—often equated with the Vortigern of the Historia Brittonum, struck a fatal deal with the leaders, Hengest and Horsa, who first conned him into giving them Kent as their own and then, after internal disputes, ravaged the island and brought thousands more Saxon pirates from their homeland across the North Sea.
No one takes these stories at face value any more; but that is not to say they can’t tell us anything useful. Legendary battles may be allegories of more nuanced conflict and tensions played out over generations. The reality is that Germanic immigration to these islands—now thought to have involved relatively small numbers (but see Postscript: Who are the British?—pages 423–6)—was a complex process, probably lasting as long as a whole century, and perhaps more. It may have been more evolution than revolution. There does seem to have been an overall reduction in the population of the British Isles in the fifth or sixth century, brought about by a combination of famine and plague, by the collapse of the imperial command economy and by the depredations of pirate slavers and small-scale but intense conflict among emerging polities trying to defend their territories. It is quite likely, however, that this reduction was not catastrophic in scale. Many of these territories may initially have been centred on the civitates, the ancient tribal regions recognised by the Romans; elsewhere they splintered into smaller units of power, less regional than local and more kin-based. The spheres of activity of characters remembered by legend as national heroes and villains might, in reality, have been local or regional, as was the case with many of the saints of the next century. Arthur may have been an exception—his recorded geography spans the west of Britain from Somerset to Dumfriesshire. Ambrosius belongs, if anywhere, to Eryri, to Snowdonia, whose southern approach Dinas Emrys watches.
The site of his fortress is now cloaked in sweating, lichenencrusted jungle, the ramparts and walls almost impossible to make out. The modern approach from the north-east is an easy scramble; the original entrance to the south-west is steep. The topography, intimate and intimidating, is reminiscent of Dunadd and of Dumbarton. The narrative preserved in the Historia Brittonum56 tells how Vortigern, whose people had turned against him, was advised by his magi, his druids, to construct a fort in this natural fastness. Three times his masons and carpenters built their ramparts, and three times they fell down in the night; then when he asked them the cause of this evil, the magi told Vortigern that he must find a child without a father (that is, he must be born of a virgin mother), kill the boy in the fort and sprinkle his blood there, so that the fort would be safe from attack (in a Christian context this has the sharp reek of pagan blood-sacrifice). The boy, according to the legend, was Ambrosius, but he turned out to be an unwilling sacrifice. He told Vortigern that the collapse of the ramparts was caused by a lake beneath the foundations whose existence neither magi nor masons were aware of. Ambrosius predicted that in this lake they would find two vessels; that the vessels contained a cloth in which two worms, one red, one white, were asleep. The magi duly found the vessels containing the cloth, and unfolded it; the worms woke, began to fight and after a long conflict the red worm was victorious. The boy revealed that it was a dragon representing the Britons and the white worm a dragon representing the invaders; but that the Britons could only achieve victory if he, Ambrosius, was given the fortress, representing the kingdom, and Vortigern departed to exile. So Ambrosius was recognised prophetically as overlord of the Britons. It’s all good stuff, full of potent omen, divination and metaphysical storytelling. When Geoffrey of Monmouth borrowed this tale for his Historia Regum Britanniae, he gave the fatherless boy the name Merlin, whose early childhood he based on material from the Historia Brittonum.
The experience of the visitor is to wish that, somehow, one could be transported back in time to meet the protagonists and witness the dynamics of an Early Medieval royal fortress at first hand. Archaeological evidence suggests that the fortification here is of the right sort of date to fit Vortigern’s and Ambrosius’s fifth-century time frame: in excavations during the 1950s it produced sherds of Mediterranean pottery (table wares and amphorae) and a sherd from an oil lamp bearing the Christian chi-rho symbol, all of which must belong to a period before the middle of the sixth century. The absence of priests from the Vortigern /Ambrosius tale suggests that the story may originate in pagan tradition, although elsewhere in the Historia Vortigern is reproved by the British clergy and by St Germanus for marrying his own daughter.
The day after Snowdon and Dinas Emrys was one of discomfort and slog. I was as stiff as a board after the descent from the mountains; I still had another pass to cross as I headed due west against the glacial grain of the valleys; it rained most of the day; and to make matters worse a mistake on the Ordnance Survey map took me way off the trail and up to my waist in bog and bracken. I was not a happy walker. But the memory of Dinas Emrys and of that sticker on a lamp post on Anglesey kept me busy thinking about navigation, especially since my indispensable modern tool, the walking map, had got me lost. The ‘Uninvited traders are not welcome’ notice had set me on a train of thought which now, trudging soaked through wet lanes and across muddy fields, came to fruition.
There is a story, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, of a Wessex king’s reeve, who, on hearing of the arrival of three ships in the year 785, went to bring their captains to the villa regia, the royal manor, but was killed by raiders. The reeve had reasoned, fatally, that foreign ships must contain traders hoping for an introduction to the regional chief, which rather says something about the period between the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and the late eighth century. In confirmation of that sense of order, these were times when royal palaces and local settlements were undefended. Great lords, who wished to control access to markets, to keep for themselves the perquisites of high-value exotic goods and to harvest news and information from travellers, kept a close eye on foreign trade. By the middle of the eighth century, kings such as Ine of Wessex and Offa of Mercia had begun to encourage the construction of coastal settlements like Hamwic (modern Southampton), Gipeswic (Ipswich) and Lundenwic and Eoforwic (York)—well inland but on navigable rivers—where they could take a cut of the profits. This trend was accelerated by the transfer of royal land to the church, reducing the stream of goods supplied by renders. Now kings needed cash; and as early as the late seventh century they began to revive coinage as a means of solidifying the value of goods and converting organic, perishable renders to more portable and tradeable wealth. The Early Medieval core value of gift-giving, an unending cycle of obligation and response, was becoming systematised.
Key to the success of the trader was the introduction: uninvited traders—door-to-door salesmen, cold-callers and so on—were as unwelcome to the Dark Age lord as they were to the officious sticker-posters of Anglesey’s twenty-first-century County Council. In the Early Medieval period, famously, groups of people travelling through the land were classified according to the size of the party. King Ine’s Laws of the late seventh century accounted ‘seven men thieves; from seven to thirty-five a “band”, above that it is an army’. That is to say, men abroad, hence not under the protection of a lord, must consider themselves liable to be viewed with hostility unless they had legitimate business and carried bona fides. What guaranteed safe entry to, or passage through, the king’s land was the right introduction. Business has always worked that way. When we need a builder or plumber, before we open the phone directory or search on the Internet, we ask our trusted friends if they know of a reliable one. Reputation matters. These days it is called ‘networking’.
In order to gain entry to an exploitable market—a manor or the lord’s hall, the villages that belonged to him—or to gain the confidence and hospitality of the abbot of a monastery, the Early Medieval traveller needed guarantees, and these came with either familiarity or an introduction from a trusted intermediary. The same rules applied to the intrepid explorers and missionaries of later centuries. If you wanted to travel to the fabled city of Gondar in Abyssinia or the court of Kublai Khan in Xanadu, you needed an introduction; and a guide. To avoid being hunted down and killed by the native warriors of indigenous tribes, the pioneering trappers and traders of colonial-era North America secured guides to lead them to their destination and introduce them to the chief who could guarantee them safe passage. That extraordinary, shocking scene in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, when Sherif Ali (the equivalent rank to the shire reeve of Anglo-Saxon England) of the Harith shoots Lawrence’s guide because ‘the Hasimi may not drink at our wells’, shows what happens when the protocols are breached, inadvertently or by design (that film has been like an earworm on my recent journeys). For the medieval monk the risk might be obviated by a shared knowledge of Latin and the scriptures; by the humble clothing, lack of weaponry and bare feet of the pilgrim. The wrong brooch or accent, an inappropriate greeting, might prove fatal to the unwary. For the uninvited traveller in an antique land, there were many perils. Augustine had fatally misread the protocols when he met a convocation of British bishops in 601/2; he cannot have been the only foreigner to tread on native toes.
So I have become relaxed about journeying in the Dark Ages. I only ever once hired a guide, in northern Mali, on my way to see the fabled Dogon people of the Bandiagara escarpment. It didn’t work out: I got sick, was laid up in a brothel in Mopti on the banks of the Niger, and had to pay him off. You sometimes hear awful stories of travellers trapped at airports without the right papers or sufficient money to buy them, caught in an endless cycle as outcasts. I imagine the same thing to have happened in the Dark Age court on occasion; a traveller without local language or sponsor, with insufficient status, credentials or wealth, suspected and detained indefinitely. Now I feel I could get around that world, through shire and manor, pagus57 and civitas, without worrying about maps or trying to navigate by the stars or sun. I would hire a reliable guide—say, the oldest son of achæpman58 at an inn. I would pay him well to ensure he transported me to the royal manor on a good horse, that he instructed me in the correct protocols of the court (dress, greetings, arms and so on); that he provided me with access to the right people (the reeve; the lady of the court) and smoothed the path of my business (with the right gifts: marten furs, a garnet, a curious trinket like a shrunken head, an ivory plaque, an oil lamp carrying a chi-rho symbol or a small piece of the true cross). The value of dress and manner, of such niceties as the style and quality of a brooch on a cloak, could not be overestimated.
From the royal manor another guide, familiar with the orbit of this lord’s influence and with his own local knowledge, might take me on the next stage in my journey. The account of the visit of Ohthere of Hålogaland—a Norwegian seafarer—to King Alfred’s court shows that the best sort of guest came with lavish gifts, extraordinary stories and a few mates who looked like they could handle themselves. Ohthere provided the king with a detailed geography of the Northern seas, of its peoples and kings, with accounts of fabled trading centres like Hedeby in Denmark and of the goods that were traded throughout Scandinavia. In return for such fascinating and useful information—so useful that it was incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon edition of Orosius’s history of the world—Alfred could give the trader invaluable access to new markets and royal contacts.
If I did not travel with a guide, if I stumbled blindly through the land and arrived unannounced at the gates of a fortress like Dinas Emrys, I could hardly be surprised if the gate closed in my face and someone shouted ‘Gadewch a pheidiwch â dod yn ôl!’ (‘Please leave and do not return’) or stuck a spear in my retreating back. The traveller needs a good guide.
I emerged from the misty, rain-lashed hills, and from my contemplation, into a land of slate and woollen mills, of small walled pastures and broad, meandering streams. At Dolbenmaen I hoped for a hot plate and warm fireside for lunch, but the pub was shut and all I managed to find was a cold pasty and a bar of chocolate from the Post Office cum village store. But at least the rain had nearly stopped. The land here is still sufficiently marginal for the remains of cairns and hut circles—all of which could date from anywhere between the late Bronze Age and the Early Medieval period—to be dotted, like scabs, among rough pastures. On one green lane across a small plateau I passed the entrance to what must have been a Neolithic long barrow or chambered tomb, unmarked on the map and evidently never excavated. I found a circuitous route to a small farm called Llystyn Gwyn, just off the road between Porthmadog and Caernarvon and close to the site of a Roman camp. The farm seemed deserted. The roofs of the byres were holed, slates misplaced and doors swinging on squeaky hinges. I crept through its yards and gardens, feeling as though I were being watched. A white caravan was parked in a yard with half its aluminium side panel torn off; no curtains hung in the dark windows of the house; nettles grew uncontrolled in the garth. An old wrecked car stood there. It is one of the creepiest places I have ever been; and I am not easily spooked. It was as if the inhabitants had vanished minutes before, never to return. Beneath a slate lintel covered by turf and incorporated into a wall made of tumbled stone and old rubber car tyres, a slab of undistinguished sandstone must, I supposed, have been what I had come to see: Gwynedd’s only in situ ogham stone. Had I been able to read anything in this flat, dingy light, the bilingual inscription, in the strange slashed alphabet of Irish ogham59 and in Latin capitals, would have read ICORI FILIUS POTENTINI (‘Icorix son of Potentinus’). The site is doubly special, for the element Llys—court, manor—in the name Llystyn Gwyn betrays the former presence of a noble hall there in the Dark Ages. Perhaps I should have waited for the sun to come out, as it eventually did that day; but I couldn’t get out of there quick enough. Close to a small village just west of Criccieth I camped for the night and was sufficiently tired not to bother looking for a meal.
The next morning, still hellish tight in the muscles, hungry and longing for a hot bath, but at least well-showered and rested, I made my way north-west along switchback lanes and reflected that trying to navigate through a settled landscape with proprietorial rights on all sides would have been a mug’s game. At the foot of Garn Bentyrch, one of those conical hills that dot the landscape of the Llŷn peninsula, I came to Llangybi, a church of that same St Cybi who founded the royal monastery at Holyhead. The present building, like almost all village churches in north Wales, is an unprepossessing Victorian thing with neo-Perpendicular windows. The entrance to the churchyard is a narrow covered gateway with a wrought-iron gate—the latter a ubiquitous feature of farms, fields and churches here. Just inside the gate an early simple cross-incised stone, the right shape and size to slot into what in Ireland would be called a leacht or table-tomb, suggested that Cybi’s church had not lost all its early associations. In the cemetery I noticed that the gravestone inscriptions were about fifty-fifty English and Welsh.
A small stone stile in the farther wall of the churchyard led down a bank to the edge of a stream and a pair of low, ruined buildings: cottages, but not just any old cottages; that on the left housed Ffynnon Gybi, a dressed stone cistern from whose dark, clear depths a natural spring welled up. There are hundreds and perhaps thousands of wells and springs across Britain that have holy associations, often with a very local hermit or martyr, sometimes with some great patron-saint like Colmcille or Patrick. Generally, archaeologists assume that such springs must have been sacred in pre-Christian, animist cultures. The magic of pure water emerging from the rock, especially if it isn’t contaminated by the pathogens associated with livestock and human habitation, is worthy of veneration. That such waters were believed to heal ailments and could sanctify the liturgy of a local priest or the baptism of an infant is not so hard to understand. At any rate, it was a rather lovely spot, green and quiet and perfect for a mid-morning break; and I drank the water.
I continued north-west, skirting Garn Bentyrch and now using as my mark the mottled heather-purple and scree-brown of Yr Eifl, at eighteen hundred feet a major landmark of the north coast of Llŷn. Before it stood the mammiform outline of another of the so-called Rivals (by an Anglicisation of Yr Eifl): Tre’r Ceiri, one of the great Iron Age hill forts of Britain. Iron Age it may be, but since the English translation of the name means ‘Home of the Giants’, how could I not climb it? Before the rise of the hills I was diverted by a loose pony adrift on a back lane. The owner didn’t seem much concerned, but we ushered the beast back into its paddock all the same. At a smallholding I could not see the true path and chatted to the farmer before he showed me where the stile lay. On another path, diverted to circumvent a farmyard, the bramble was so thick that I tore my ear open and bled like a stuck pig for a couple of miles. In the late morning I came upon Llanaelhaearn, a village distinguished not just by well-known Latin inscription stones but, for the weary and hungry traveller, an excellent small café run by a Mancunian former Para’ and Royal Engineer, Dave Watkinson. I was the only customer, but I don’t think I did any injustice to his splendid breakfast. The news that day was dominated by the beheading by Islamic State militants of an American journalist, James Foley, so naturally talk revolved around the Middle East where Dave had served his time, mostly in the hellhole of Basra. He wasn’t much impressed by my bramble-torn ear.
On, then, to the church, in whose graveyard I found the so-called Melitus stone, inscribed solely with that otherwise unknown Christian’s name. I was more keen to see another stone belonging here, inscribed in memory of Aliortus Elmetiacos—Aliortus the Elmetian—that is to say, a native of West Yorkshire, the British kingdom of Elmet. But find it I could not. I supposed it to reside inside the church, which was locked with no trace of a keyholder. Along the road from the church, on my way to the foot of Tre’r Ceiri, was the site of another holy well, in this case belonging to the seventh-century St Ælhaern who had given his name to the village. These hills are steeped in early Christian tradition. If not all priests and holy men were literate, enough of them were to keep Latin alive not, in the end, as a spoken language, but as a written form of intellectual expression, protocol, faith and learning. But my suspicion, given the proliferation of saintly names preserved in this landscape, is that sanctity may have been applied to a significant proportion of the otherwise disinherited aristocratic male population of the sixth century—perhaps the equivalent of the second sons of the manse who became clergymen in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In that time of plenty and of social upheaval, third sons could not even expect a modest living in the church; many of them went to London, or abroad, to seek their fortunes and became a generation of entrepreneurial innovators—Davy, Maudslay, Bramah, Brunel, Faraday, themselves redrawing the landscape and becoming memorialised in buildings, bridges and the hardware of the industrial revolution.
The tumbled drystone hut circles and curtain wall of the Home of the Giants were memorable for their technical sophistication and architectural excellence, for the shelter they gave from buffeting winds and for the huge view the hilltop offered: back to Anglesey and to Snowdonia, south to the broad sweep of Cardigan Bay and the heights of Cader Idris, west and south-west to the long elephant’s trunk of Llŷn with its dewdrop, Bardsey Island, far in the distance. Llŷn was and is part of Gwynedd, the Venedotia of Latin memorials. The name was once supposed to have derived from a legendary northern warrior, Cunedda, said to have brought his people here one hundred and forty-six years before the reign of King Maelgwyn and to have founded that dynasty. The attractive Cunedda story, preserved in the Northern genealogies in the Nennian compendium, relates that Cunedda and his eight sons were brought here to expel the Irish from the northern part of Wales and that, after their arrival, the Irish never returned to Britain. That there was Irish cultural and perhaps genetic influence on Wales in the Early Medieval period can hardly be doubted; there are stories of Irish raids—St Patrick was a victim of such slave-hunting pirates—in the fourth and fifth centuries. But they do not seem to have been expelled by Cunedda or any other Arthurian hero. To begin with, Welsh Llŷn shares its etymological root with Irish Lein, from the Irish tribal nameLageni, denoting those who lived in Leinster, the province lying to the south of Dublin on Ireland’s east coast. And, although Cunedda fits neatly at the head of some genealogies, his name is more likely than not a back-formation from Venedotia and its Brythonic equivalent Gwynedd. A more plausible origin of the tribal name Venedotii is the Irish Fein, from another eastern Irish predatory kingdom.
The Irish, for their part, brought an energetic, vibrant Christian culture with them—hence the ogham on so many memorial stones. The Christianity of Gildas’s day, which he may have liked to believe was thoroughly Roman, owed much of its character to an Irish church inspired not by Rome but by the desert fathers. If the Irish did settle Wales in large numbers, then they assimilated successfully—the Welsh, after all, speak Welsh and not Irish. Nor did they speak Latin: although the Romans subdued the whole of Wales, Wales was never Romanised. No Roman villas were ever built in these parts; it was a militarised zone with a headquarters at Segontium (Caernarvon). In the absence of a north-western Welsh civitas which might have formed a focus of local power in the wake of Rome’s imperial decline, native elites seem to have exploited the political vacuum by reoccupying some of the ancient hill forts from which their ancestors had ruled and maintaining the native language. No Roman road penetrated the Llŷn peninsula.
From the natural vantage point offered by the Home of the Giants, watching deus ex machina spotlights piercing the cloud to illuminate a village here, a copse there, I moved on to the north coast: the weather was closing in and the air cooled. I camped for the night on a farm just east of Nefyn and there had my first hot dinner since before Snowdon. While I ate it rained, a biblical downpour that had tourists scurrying off the streets and into hotels and pubs or back into their cars. I sat complacently waiting it out, although I would have been less sanguine had I realised that I’d left the flap of the tent open. A schoolboy error. It was a damp night, the only small consolation a sunset over the Irish Sea of polar luminosity: vivid pink against grey, with an intense white halo around the sun.
My next day’s target was to cross the peninsula again, this time north to south. I wanted to see as much of the landscape of Llŷn as possible, to take in as many of its evocative sites as I could. Walking is for me the best means of getting to grips with the broad brushstrokes of topography, political geography and scale of the distant past, as it is with the present. Even so, I felt an archaeologist’s niggle at the back of my mind; a yearning to stick a spade in the ground at one—or all—of these sites and spend more considered time examining them.
For now, I found myself walking back through the streets and lanes of Nefyn, more or less empty at seven in the morning but for the postman and a few delivery vans. It was a Friday. Nefyn has managed to survive the fluctuating fortunes of tourism, fishing, farming and industry and reinvent itself as a quirky but functional hybrid with small businesses offering subsistence, if not wealth, to the local community. As well as hotels, it supports a variety of churches, from the originally sixth-century St Mary’s to the non-conformist Sionist and Methodist chapels.
I walked up the slope behind the main street, followed a lane that took me through fields full of healthy-looking steers and found an overgrown path that led circuitously to the summit of Garn Boduan, a companion of Tre’r Ceiri: an Iron Age hill fort commanding the coastline and interior of the peninsula. A fortlet constructed later on its summit may date from the Early Medieval period. Here the stone roundhouses have been consumed by summer bracken and bramble (I ate half a pound of blackberries on the hoof, as I had on most days of this trip). From the air, the pattern of cellular houses looks like a nasty case of ringworm: there are nearly two hundred of them. At just under a thousand feet the summit gives more stunning views out to sea and along the peninsula, back to Tre’r Ceiri and beyond. These hill forts seem not to have been habitually occupied in their original incarnation, but used as summer gathering places where tribute was rendered, marriages and alliances brokered, chiefly justice meted out. The third of these massive enclosures stands on top of Carn Fadryn, just a few miles further to the south-west. Beyond it, I found myself looking directly towards my destination for the day, Abersoch, with Cardigan Bay beyond. Up here the wind was biting but there were signs that the afternoon might be kinder, so I did not stay to soak up the atmosphere, but retreated to the shelter of tree and lane.
There is no really direct route south from Garn Boduan. The topography is intimate and complicated and has to be negotiated via small valleys that thread their way through the volcanic, conical hills: progress was pretty, and slow. Llanfihangel, lying in the lee of Carn Fadryn’s hill fort, offers no more than a modest chapel in what might once have been a circular graveyard. There are so many of these early Llan names that it’s hard to believe they all reflect monastic foundations on the scale of Caer Gybi or Penmon. Many of them must have been tiny establishments, the result of patronage functioning at local level, perhaps competitively so: Jones has a holy man; I’m going to have a holy man. In any case, there never was a St Fihangel—the name is a local rendering of St Michael. The culture of these parts must have proved sympathetic to the idea of the hermit, the healer, the local wise woman. There is no sign in this land of a high cross (the nearest, I think, must be at Penmon), the stamp of missionary activity from Ireland to Scotland and Northumbria. It’s also notable that the church dedications to saints do not seem to coincide with the names recovered from inscriptions in those churches or their graveyards, except in very rare cases (Llansadwrn in Anglesey offers an example in the form of a stone inscribed to Saturninus, the saint for whom the church—and the village itself—is named). These inscriptions, mostly dated to the fifth century on linguistic and epigraphic grounds, belong to a period when the indigenous diocesan rule of the Roman church fostered a network of priests, deacons and bishops, a hundred years and more before the arrival of multitudes of wandering saints.
Did these Roman clerics (the priests and deacons of Latin inscriptions) welcome Irish, Cornish, and Breton holy men and women among them; did those intrepid saints (St Ælhaern, St Cybi and their like) slip neatly into the vacuum left by a dying diocesan administration; or was the arrival of the foreign holy man and woman a subversive new element in the landscape? Either way, that their tradition has survived, even if only in name, for fifteen hundred years and more is a remarkable instance of continuity in the cultural landscape.
The dispersed nature of the settlements lends itself, perhaps, to such survival. Even so, cultures have to want to preserve the traditions of their forefathers. In Early Medieval Ireland those noble families who boasted descent from an érlam, or founding church patron, were always keen to demonstrate their rights over the land which they had given to found a church or monastery—that is why so many Irish genealogies survive. Maybe a culture that has always seen itself under siege from a powerful neighbour tends to reinforce those ties to the past, even if the seismic shift from native Catholicism to colonial Protestantism in the sixteenth century must have severed many cultural links to the past.
Because we find it so hard to identify distinct Early Medieval settlement features in the landscape—inherently hard to date and very often either indistinguishable from prehistoric remains or so ephemeral as to be invisible—the surviving evidence of the early church must stand witness to all the farmers, smiths, woodsmen, weavers, fishers, slaves and lords whose industry, patronage and productivity paid for the luxury of keeping men and women whose purpose was to pray for them.
The small village of Llangian proved more rewarding, later on in the day. Its setting is lovely: a couple of rows of neat but individual unpainted stone cottages at the bottom of a dingly dell where a stream tumbled into the Afon Soch, which gives its name to the little port of Abersoch.60Llangian has the church of St Cían, an otherwise unknown figure whose name is nevertheless suspiciously Irish. Here we have not just any old holy man finding a place to set up shop. Llangian, the historical evidence shows, was the centre of a substantial manorial holding in the Middle Ages: it supported a mill and tithe barn. The circular graveyard was surrounded by a vallum, a concentric ditch and bank which defined the sanctuary of an early monastery. In Welsh it was known as the corflan, literally ‘corpse enclosure’; but it’s an absolutely diagnostic trait of Irish-inspired monasteries, from Iona to Clonmacnois and Kingarth. Llangian, then, is the real deal: a monastery founded under the patronage of a powerful lord or local king during the great period of Western monasticism (the only partial excavation of the site has given up a radiocarbon date of c.AD 550). But the site was important even before Cían: in the churchyard stands a stone memorial belonging to perhaps a hundred years before his day: MELI MEDICI FILI MARTINI IACIT: ‘Here lies Melus the doctor, son of Martinus.’ It is unique in Britain, the only ancient memorial which survives to commemorate a doctor (unless we include the headless woman at Corbridge (see page 183). And by ‘doctor’ we might read something more, if we are inclined to a druidic interpretation of such things. For once the light was right so I could read the inscription for myself. I would have been delighted to see an image of the saint carved in relief, stirring potions in a barrel.
My last indulgence of the day was to pass through Llanengan on my way to a pitch overlooking St Tudwal’s Island (you really cannot move for early saints here). The church of St Engan does not offer the tantalising realities of Llangian; it belongs to the fifteenth century and boasts neither monastic vallum nor Latin inscription. But the saint, properly Einion Frenin, is one about whom we know a little. He was a king of the Venedotian line claiming descent from Cunedda, and a brother and patron of that Seiriol who founded Penmon and the hermitage on Priestholm. He is said to have brought St Cadfan to Bardsey Island to found the important monastery there. Near by is a well, Ffynnon Einion, and his memory is preserved in the name of a cave, a hill and a distant farm. He counts, therefore, as much a royal patron as a holy man. Tudwal, another manifestation of the great flowering of the church in the middle of the sixth century, was a Breton holy man who, having been trained in Ireland, founded a hermitage on one of the two islands lying just off the point at Abersoch.61 Later in his career he migrated to Brittany and was made Bishop of Tréguier by Childebert I of the Franks.
Saturday 23 August was my last full day of walking on the trail towards Bardsey. I wasn’t sure if I would get there. Only a couple of boats make it regularly to the island, and given that the following day was a Bank Holiday, I figured I might be lucky to get a ticket. At least, for once, the weather smiled: I had a full day of skin-soaking, bone-warming sun as I walked the clifftops and coves, bays and promontories of the south coast, westwards towards Aberdaron. It was a day of sensory treats: a clutter of a farm, clusters of old drystone enclosures and sheep folds, a rotting barn, a small herd of very affable and characterful goats, a brilliant display of yellow and purple, the coconut whiff of gorse and buzzing carpet of heather—and all the time the rippling light of sun on the dark blue sea with the odd fishing boat laying a lobster pot or taking divers out.
I was glad to be ending this journey; it had been a long year and I felt all walked-out. I ate the last of my trail food early in the afternoon and came to rest at a campsite just shy of Aberdaron. I pitched the tent and strolled down into a busy village centre, crowded with Bank Holiday tourists and locals; the beach was a mass of bathers and picnickers. I drank a pint of beer in minor celebration and ate fish and chips sitting on a bench on the bank of the river that issues into the sea here. I stupidly neglected to explore the church which overlooks the bay, my Dark Age guidebook having failed to record two important early inscriptions.
Sunday: another jewel of a day, and I was up early with the sun. There was no point hanging around, so having stopped off at the excellent local bakery for a pastry and coffee I walked along the shore and then the clifftop path to Porthmeudwy, a tiny cove and slipway about a mile or so south-west of Aberdaron. I held out little hope of finding a passage to Bardsey, but I thought the early bird might catch a worm and before eight-thirty I was looking down on the cove from above. A woman emerged from the sea in a wetsuit. The man I subsequently knew as Colin Evans was leaning over the side of his small, powerful launch, talking to a man driving an old tractor. I had seen quite a few ancient-looking tractors along the coast, kept in good nick to take small boats down to the shore; here was a veritable museum of the things, all gaily painted and in tip-top condition. The launch was still on its trailer, twin outboards all shiny and fuelled up, ready to be lowered into the water by a dumper truck. I climbed down to the shingly beach and wandered over. Any chance of a ride out today, I said.
—Sorry, my friend, I’m fully booked.
—That’s a pity; but no worries, I thought you would be busy on this weekend of all weekends.
—Are you here for a while?
—Just today and tomorrow. But I wasn’t sure when I would get here, so I couldn’t book.
—Yes, sorry about that.
—It’s nice to see an old Fordson Major looking in such good trim…
—You know about tractors, do you?
—Used to have one [when I lived in my first wood: it was a cantankerous old thing and kept getting stuck in mud].
—Hard to get are they, up where you live?
—I know a man who has one or two. Matter of fact, I know where my old tractor is.
—I’d love to have another…
The conversation went on for a while. Trippers with tickets drifted down. I told Colin (we had by now introduced ourselves) about my trip on Eda Frandsen and how I’d walked all the way from Anglesey on a Dark Age pilgrimage. I laid it on, shamelessly, with a trowel until, eventually, he gave in.
The crossing took about twenty thrilling minutes at high speed with the launch bouncing like a powerboat on twin 135-horsepower engines. It fair blew the cobwebs away. Our party consisted of a few day-trippers and two families of farmers who raised sheep on the slopes of Cader Idris. For twenty years and more they had looked at Bardsey from across thirty miles of Cardigan Bay, through a telescope. They were finally fulfilling a promise to themselves to come to this magical place. At the little slipway on Ynys Enlli, the Island of Currents, Colin Evans disgorged his slightly dizzy passengers and stepped ashore to tell us all about the island community, of which he is a passionate member and advocate. He was among sympathetic listeners—my farming friends and me. We talked of traditional farming and landscapes, of early Christians and our shared feelings for community. They very kindly spoke mostly in English and I was suitably humble—and humbled. I later discovered that Colin is the son of poet Christine Evans.
For four hours, and with an admonition not to be late for the return leg, I wandered the mile-long island, from the flat, grassy plain on its exposed west side, to the five-hundred-foot-high ridge that gives sublime, soul-nourishing views back onto Llŷn; through the ruins of the abbey, past the old schoolhouse (now a small museum), the farmhouses that support the active agriculture and craft of the Bardsey community and provide accommodation for modern pilgrims—both Christian and, like myself, entirely secular—who come here every year. It reminded me of Iona, its sense of perching on the edge of the world. The island is owned by a trust and tenanted by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: Bardsey’s habitat is maintained for wildlife through traditional farming methods. At the south end of the island there is a beautifully four-square, solid, red-and-white striped lighthouse standing, perhaps, in the enclosure of a prehistoric fort. Close to the roofless abbey church is a more recent chapel. Here are housed a cross and inscription stone: the setting simple, unaffected and absolutely genuine in its sentiment. Cows swished their tails in the shoreline fields; bracken, gorse and heather cloaked the hillside. Cadfan, the founder of the monastic community here in the sixth century, cannot have been the first to appreciate the island’s beauty and its atmosphere of magic and tension.
In latter days (from perhaps the late eighteenth century) there was a King of Bardsey, the result of a local tradition that might have deep ceremonial roots. The last to wear the crown was an extraordinary man called Love Pritchard who, at the age of seventy-one, offered himself as a volunteer for service in the trenches of the First World War. He is said to have once rowed from Bardsey to Liverpool, an extraordinary feat. Bardsey was depopulated in the late 1920s when the community had shrunk so much that there were insufficient people to man the boats to row inhabitants on and off the island.
I could not believe that I had been lucky enough to finish this profoundly intense journey with such an uplifting and soul-invigorating send-off. Sitting on the slipway wall, admiring the texture and lines of a low-slung, time-battered barn overlooking the strand, watching a family of seals basking in the sun and enjoying doing nothing for the first time in ten days, the sense of journey’s end, of fulfilment, came on strong. That day I learned much from Colin Evans and his deep-felt advocacy of the island way of life; from my farming acquaintances and from the island community who sustain it. Landscape archaeology is largely the study of what survives; and especially today the survival of that heritage takes special people of resilience and vision.