The Lost Pilgrims of The West

Going further west than I had ever done before, I was expecting to see and meet more of those that I originally met heading The Alternative Way, as I have dubbed it.  This would mean finding those who were more caught up with the legends of King Arthur, Avalon and old mystical places – rather than anything to do with prayers, religious dogma and revelations – and like one of the sets of characters that I first met back in Winchester in 1991. 

My expectations were based on snippets I had read about those claiming some part or hold over the old  Dark Age legends of Britain, with the Welsh – those furthest West – being amongst those with perhaps the closest, if not strongest, claim to perhaps the best known of these: that Merlin, the spiritual advisor to King Arthur, was one of their people (or, rather, a spiritual leader from one of the native tribes who lived in that area back then).  There’s also the claim that some of the stones used in Stonehenge come from the Preseli Mountains there, and that Merlin is supposed to have somehow used his powers to help transport them to its site in Salisbury Plain.  The Irish also claim Merlin too – but, either way, it seems to be accepted that he was a Celtic character  possibly involved in spiritual proceedings around that time and some form of druid or magician.

The thing is, it’s only been snippets like that that I have found out about the Welsh and Irish connections – and perhaps because both Welsh and Irish are Celtic languages that were only spoken and not written at that time?  Who knows – but I was hoping I might find something that might at least relate to those early times and experiences, without necessarily having to learn the language.

To start with, I must admit, I took it easy on following this trail and enjoyed the great sunny weather that we were very fortunate to have in that Royal Wedding week – and especially where we went to in that little corner of Pembrokeshire in Wales that sits conveniently at the end of the M4, along with its load of great well-preserved Roman and medieval walled towns to explore (as well as great beaches and countryside, of course!). 

Surprisingly though, when simply just relaxing in those first few days there at one of the beaches, I came across this sign:

Sign at Whitesands, near St. David's in Pembrokeshire, Wales

Ironically, this looked to fit more with The Pilgrim’s Way – which I was used to seeing signs and places to visit back on the East side of the M4, and especially from Winchester in the South to Canterbury in the East. 

No one had told me about the pilgrims’ trail in this part of the country before – and, perhaps naively, I had just presumed that everyone in the Dark Ages and medieval times went east to find their will or their way or whatever it is that a pilgrim seeks. Of course, I should have realised that back then the kingdom was not united as it is now – and so the Celtic people of the West side needed their own set of saints and succour, as much as those did in the East. 

Sadly the actual site showed no sign of the chapel, nor even burial ground, that once stood at this place.  There was a path next to the sign that led off into the hills, but I could not see any trace of plots and buildings.

The pathway next to the sign showing the pilgrim site It was not until I went to get back in the car, and looked back across the carpark to the sign, that I could get an idea of where the site of the chapel had been.Look back across the carpark and you can just make out the site

So who or what were those pilgrims seeking, so far from anywhere there?

It was not until I came to another town called St. David’s that I got any clue or inkling about who these pilgrims might have been seeking.

The clue was in the name of the little city and the consequences of how it came to have a cathedral. 

The Celtic Cross at the heart of St. David'sSt. David's Cathedral - which makes it St. David's City

St. David’s is, in fact, the UK’s smallest city – having been granted that status by Queen Elizabeth II on account of its cathedral. Yet there is more to it than that, as I discovered.

St. David's Cathedral - making it St. David's City

St. David was one of the first and officially recognised Celtic saints, as well as being the patron saint of Wales. An interesting fact is that he was “born out of violence” to the daughter of a king by the King of Ceredigion. His unfortunate mother, Non, ended up her days in a Breton convent and notably achieved sainthood herself.  He lived in the fifth to sixth century AD.

The timing of this seems to tie in quite well with Arthurian legends of the time. Indeed, St. David was reputed to have visited Glastonbury around the time that King Arthur was reputed to have lived – so perhaps they could even have met or he could have written a sermon, story or letter about him or “the great encampment of Camelot” if it existed then and there?  Indeed, his mother may well have known Lancelot and his mother, Vyvyanne and the du Lac family – as they originated from Brittany.  Certainly the contemporary parallels are interesting, if not intriguing.

Unfortunately none of this explains the sign I saw down at Whitesands beach, however I am simply surmising that site on the pilgrims’ trail there ends up at St. David’s – but with nothing to tell me why, as yet.  

Certainly there is nothing to connect this at all with The Pilgrims’ Way in the East – and so it seems like some potential for lots of lost pilgrims in this part of the UK [ and maybe that’s where the expression “Go west” has come from – perhaps even tied in with going that far to see where the sun goes after it sets – but it is not clear from some of the links I’ve found on that ].  Still, who were the pilgrims back then and what were THEY seeking, by contrast with their Anglo-Saxon Christian counterparts in the East.  Certainly the crosses are Celtic by contrast (and I will blog more on why that may be significant later).  

For now, it seems that Wales has losts its pilgrims and its pilgrim’s trail – perhaps to the wise men of the East – but maybe there’s simply more research in following up on whether this is the case and why, as well as blogging on’t.

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About Matt's Tale

A New Age travel writer, seeing the old in the new and the bold in the blue - but mainly seeking the freedom to be, as much as to do. His tales come from meeting modern day travellers following their likes of King Arthur to Geoffrey Chaucer, leading him on to places considered "Camelot" and different ways to see Canterbury and cafes a lot. Email: mattstale@yahoo.co.uk Twitter: @mattstale
This entry was posted in Pembrokeshire, Pilgrimages, St. David's, Whitesands, Winchester and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Lost Pilgrims of The West

  1. Cindy Eve says:

    love it Matt. the tale gets more and more interesting. you should be a sleuth, you certainly have a way of digging out interesting facts. I was thinking how much fun it would be if we managed to get a group together based on Chaucer’s known characters and set off for Canterbury! I have a tent and a sleeping bag now 🙂 and I have discovered that I can sleep on the ground without too much ill-effect.
    re St David’s – I’ve been there too and I have also been to Camelot. you are going to have to twist my arm to find out where it is 🙂
    Cindy
    @notjustagranny

  2. Matt's Tale says:

    More strewth, than sleuth – using the explorer’s technique which you already seem to know pretty well without even reading books on’t. Check out “The White Rock – An Exploration of the Inca Heartland” by Hugh Thomson to understand wot I mean – as he uses similar techniques to some of the great explorers to uncover a lost Inca ruin, and in much the same way as Hiram Bingham found Macchu Pichu beneath the noses of the archaeologists. That added focus to what I realised I was starting to do back in 2006, in simply reflecting on 15 years of travels and realising patterns and connections between things without necessarily having to dig too deeply and more from simply talking to people…

    Anyhow, Cindy, methinks you already understand a lot of that and are on to my cunning plan to see if we can recreate some of the spirit of Chaucer in retravelling the truly road less travelled to Canterbury – but, forget the tent and sleeping bag as well as sleeping on the ground, as the only chills and spills we would need to worry about would be ones from sleeping in dam and possibly spooky old taverns or coaching houses where the spirits of those lost fourteenth century pilgrims, whose tales did not get mentioned in Chaucer’s Tales (such as The Gardener), might take hold in channelling their missing tales through one or other of us whose spirit is true and close to theirs in the present day.

    Which reminds me, lassie, have you done any of the late night ghost walks of London yet?? Aye, now THERE’S a buzz ye can get from seeing the creepy wee places. Oh No, it appears the spirit of some Scottish geest has grabbed me noo – and is telling me ye should goo to Edinburgh!! 😉

    Ah, you say you’ve been to Camelot – do you mean that muddy field near Glastonbury known now as Cadbury? I remember trudging my way through the mud up that hill – only to be chased back down again by the cows that the farmer had let loose in the paddock earlier (and aren’t the sign-posts to it really obscure – or they were back in 1991). Thing is, I got no vibes from there at all that that was THE PLACE – but, I too, now have my theories on where it actually is (and tucked away safe and sound too -thanks to a certain well-educated Tudor sovereign seeing through the papal ruse). So we may well have to trade stories on that at some stage, if Cadbury not be your Camelot! 😉

    Equally, I look forward to your next travels and discoveries – perhaps writing up about those bones you found beneath the water line of The Thames?? Scarey but troo too, lassie!!!

    So I look forward to herring more and having some fun on the road or roads somewhere…

    Matt
    @mattstale (as, yes, ye’ve made me realise that I needed another Twitter account for this alone – so who’s leading who?)

  3. Pingback: Beyond The Sea – and Sky! | mattstale

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