If I’ve been quiet for a few days it’s for no more sinister reason than the fact that we’re in the campervan in a place where there’s no internet and only a very occasional phone signal – about as far west as it’s possible to go in Wales. However the Gods have smiled on us today and a half decent but incredibly slow signal appeared out of nowhere. We’re in Pembrokeshire, west of St Davids and overlooking Ramsey Island – most of the time. The rest of the time we’ve been in thick sea mist without even being able to see the sea, let alone the island. So we’ve been reading and walking and I’ve been writing too but that will have to wait until there’s a more reliable signal.
Six or seven years ago we were on holiday near here with our extended family and we went into the Cathedral. Generally speaking I’m not a great fan of churches and cathedrals, because after thirty odd years of working on the inside of the institution; I always hope for something powerful to happen and it rarely does – it’s a long story. But on this particular day I was standing outside the main door waiting for the others and I had the strangest intuition that there was something for me there. I was intrigued, but couldn’t see any way that whatever the gift was, it could come in the midst of the hordes of tourists who were in any case being shooed out so that a rehearsal could take place. But as we climbed up the long flight of steps towards the town I pondered on the thought of developing a cross-country pilgrimage to St Davids beginning from home – around 140 miles, probably much longer if we used footpaths and tracks. That’s me – typically thinking that gifts always need to be earned!
So fast forwarding to today, we decided to walk around the coast path past St Non’s Chapel. St Non was the mother of St David, and the chapel was always said to be at the place she gave birth to him on the clifftop one night during a terrible storm. I had absolutely no expectations other than purely antiquarian ones regarding the trip, and as we walked the cliff path we could see a small building in the distance. The site was in three parts. There is a chapel, built in 1937 but containing many fragments of much older buildings found in the vicinity. Then there are the ruins of the far older chapel, and finally there’s the well.
The little chapel is everything that the cathedral is not – tiny, empty, unpretentious but full of – let’s say – presence. What was even stranger was that as we walked in, there were two house martins fluttering around above in the roof space, near their nest. The chapel was a very powerful place in its own quiet way. Then on the way to the ruined remains of the chapel we passed the well. It was as if the peaceful moments inside the chapel had laid the foundations for a second, more powerful experience.
I’m used to being disappointed by wells too. It’s not that I’m in any way obsessive about them, but ever since my early teens I’ve been fascinated by them. Mostly they’re overgrown, completely neglected and hard to find; but this one is a big stone cistern, housed within a romanesque stone arch with descending steps. The well is reputed to have healing properties and so after a brief chat with a women who was only too pleased to take her boots off and bathe her swollen ankle in the cool water, I did the same – encouraged by Madame who offered her T shirt to dry my foot – I used my own. I think it was the gift I’d been promised all those years previously; but stumbled on accidentally and thwarting my need to earn it. Foot bathing is, of course, a pretty powerful symbol.
Having dried my foot and put my boots back on, we walked on a few yards to look at the ruins of the old chapel; but then it came to me that I’d forgotten to leave anything behind in thanks. I’d pricked my hand on a bramble while I was scrambling to stand safely on the slippery stone shelf, but I thought that leaving my blood behind was a pretty glum sort of thanks. Then I remembered the coins. I always carry some small coins in my pocket to cast the I Ching – but I don’t carry just three, I carry five from which I choose three. So I left one there, both in thanksgiving but also to establish a kind of connection. This is the kind of heterodox behaviour that gets you into trouble, I thought – without a trace of remorse.
In some of these healing places there are piles of crutches and sticks. Once, in Les Saintes Marie down on the Camargue there was a whole artificial limb we saw, but of course this wasn’t about my sore ankle. It was about an older, deeper pain. We followed a footpath back across the meadows, barely half a mile to the Cathedral. The whole walk was no more than six miles – nowhere near enough for me to be able to stride up full of self importance and demand my mysterious gift after 140 or 150 miles on the road. Bah humbug! – you might say it’s all in your imagination and that’s exactly right – where else would it be except in my imagination. That’s how the landscape and the plants and our allotment speak – so thanks, no really thanks!