Saturday, 19 July 2014

A pilgrimage to Bardsey Island


I love islands and I had always wanted to see Bardsey Island. It had been one of those Inaccessible Islands that that fascinated me when young, and then never released its grip.

For me, any island is special. So far as islands around Great Britain go, I have very much enjoyed my visits to St Michael's Mount (1964 and 1979); the Isle of Wight (several visits from 1965 onwards); Arran (1969); Jersey (1974 and 1999); Lundy (1996); Seil (2002); Burgh Island (2003 and 2005); Holy Island/Lindisfarne (2006); Skye, Guernsey and Sark (all in 2010); and Hilbre Island (2014). However, only Lundy and Hilbre Island involved any real sense of adventure, which I think is essential for a full-on island experience. It must involve time, expense, remoteness - and the risk of being stranded.

Contrast Lundy and Burgh Island, for instance - both in Devon, or rather offshore from Devon. Lundy involves a two-hour voyage, and a transfer to a smaller boat to reach the jetty on the island. If the conditions are too rough, no landing is allowed. It looks remote and far out at sea. Even close up, it has the air of a place you may not get back from so easily:


Burgh Island looks like a likely contender on the map; and when seen from a distance:


But in fact you can walk to it at low tide, over the sand that links it to the mainland. There's a posh hotel and a pub there. Face out to sea, and maybe you can imagine being far out from the shore. But the illusion is shattered when you see how close Bigbury-on-Sea is. And if the tide does come in, and covers the sand, a strange 'bus' can take you there and back, through the waves, so that you are never cut off:


I'm not mocking Burgh island: it's truly a place apart - but only just. I hanker after the real deal.

When I get to Orkney, for instance, the island of Shapinsay, twenty minutes' voyage from Kirkwall harbour, is a place I could take Fiona to for a morning's tour. But it's no real challenge. Driving Fiona around on Sanday or Westray, which both lie further north, would be rather more like it. And a visit to North Ronaldsay (sans Fiona) would be a very rich experience.

Similarly, to step on Rum, Eigg, Muck or Canna in the Inner Hebrides would be a wonderful thing to do. I would also look forward to Foula and Fair Isle. But Sula Sgeir and St Kilda, those outposts in the Atlantic, are probably going to be forever beyond my reach. I will have to content myself with exploring the Scilly Islands.

Back to Bardsey Island, and my recent 'pilgrimage' to it. This lay off the cliffy tip of the Lleyn penisula, the Land's End of North Wales. The furthest point of a longish day trip from where the caravan was pitched at Llan Ffestiniog. To get there, I drove through Porthmadog (decent shopping, but otherwise ordinary), Criccieth (pleasantly upmarket), Pwllheli (decidedly downmarket), Abersoch (nicely nautical) and Aberdaron.

Aberdaron was rather a find. It was place medieval pilgrims made for, in their journey to the abbey on Bardsey Island. They would look for someone at Aberdaron to ferry them to the island, which was an important place of pilgrimage, an island of many saints: very holy indeed. Three times to Bardsey was reckoned to be equal to one pilgrimage to Rome. Today Aberdaron is a small resort noted for its clean air. It is a friendly, sunny place (or was when I saw it), and yet somehow spiritual. Very much for the discerning holidaymaker.


As you can see, I took my camera to the churchyard that stretched up a steep hillside, commanding a wide view. The gravestones were worth a special shot:


Inside the church I had a surprise. Unknown to me, the poet R S Thomas (1913-2000) had been vicar here in the years before his retirement, from 1967 to 1978. He was not only fiercely Welsh, he scorned the expensive appliances and conveniences of modern living, and was frugal to the fingertips, a characteristic that comes out in his plain, rather bleak verse. I don't think he would have approved of my gadget-filled lifestyle! In fact I don't think we would have had anything at all in common. There were several books for sale inside the church, on his life and his poetry, such as this one, showing him typically unsmiling and filled with pity (and helplessness) for the souls in his care:


Everyone knows Thomas's poem Evans:

Evans? Yes, many a time
I came down his bare flight
Of stairs into the gaunt kitchen
With its wood fire, where crickets sang
Accompaniment to the black kettle’s
Whine, and so into the cold
Dark to smother in the thick tide
Of night that drifted about the walls
Of his stark farm on the hill ridge.

It was not the dark filling my eyes
And mouth appalled me; not even the drip
Of rain like blood from the one tree
Weather-tortured. It was the dark
Silting the veins of that sick man
I left stranded upon the vast
And lonely shore of his bleak bed.

Not quite so well-known, but still typical of Thomas's grim portrayal of Welsh hill-farming life, is On the farm:

There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.

There was Llew Puw, and he was no good.
Every evening after the ploughing
With the big tractor he would sit in his chair,
And stare into the tangled fire garden,
Opening his slow lips like a snail.

There was Huw Puw, too. What shall I say?
I have heard him whistling in the hedges
On and on, as though winter
Would never again leave those fields,
And all the trees were deformed.

And lastly there was the girl;
Beauty under some spell of the beast.
Her pale face was the lantern
By which they read in life’s dark book
The shrill sentence: God is love.

You mustn't think that I share his outlook, and certainly not his faith, but his concentrated, despairing vision has power, and his understanding of human nature and the basic fragility of human beings cannot be denied.

There were books on Bardsey too:


It was less than three miles further on from Aberdaron to Mynydd Mawr (Welsh for 'great mountain'). I wasn't going to take a boat to Bardsey on this occasion, but at least I could view it from the nearest bit of high land. It would be a kind of provisional pilgrimage, getting there without actually treading on the turf. Here are the shots to prove it:


I did more than this on the day, but that will have to be the subject of another post.

1 comment:

  1. Not quite 'everyone' Lucy. I've never read R.S. Thomas and am doubtless the poorer for it. Dylan Thomas is more my style: "To begin at the beginning: It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black..."

    I'm thoroughly enjoying your travelogue through Wales and try to stay one step ahead by visiting your Flickr site. I also share your love of small islands. My first ever blog entry (long since lost) came from one in my home town. Burgh was interesting, St Mary's was lovely, but Lundy takes first prize... so far, that is. A holiday in West Wales is definitely on the cards for next year.

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