Communion Of Dreams


Three weeks in Wales, Part 5: water and old stone.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

“Water and old stone” pretty much sums up Wales, for me, I think. But I have an admittedly biased perspective.

We started the next morning with a trip to Pennant Melangell, a small pilgrimage church in the Tanat valley in north Wales. Here’s the preamble I use in the first chapter of St Cybi’s Well, which is titled ‘Pennant Melangell’:

Melangell was a female saint of the 7th century. According to tradition she came here from Ireland and lived as a hermit in the valley. One day Brochwel, Prince of Powys, was hunting and pursued a hare which took refuge under Melangell’s cloak. The Prince’s hounds fled, and he was moved by her courage and sanctity. He gave her the valley as a place of sanctuary, and Melangell became Abbess of a small religious community. After her death her memory continued to be honoured, and Pennant Melangell has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. Melangell remains the patron saint of hares.
– St Melangell’s Church website

It’s a wonderful little place.

Here’s the entrance to the churchyard, with the classic lych gate:

Interior of the church:

The 15th century rood screen.

 

Chancel, with the (reconstructed) 12th century shrine of St Melangell.

 

Detail under the shrine.

 

Inside the Apse.

 

Back of the tympanum, containing a plaster panel with The Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments, all in Welsh.

In the churchyard:

I love this place. Maybe it shows:

We got some lunch in the charming little town of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant (where parts of this favorite movie was shot), then went to visit Pistyll Rhaeadr, one of the “seven natural wonders of Wales.”  The waterfall is mentioned in Communion of Dreams, and one of the major chapters of St Cybi’s Well is titled ‘Pistyll Rhaeadr’. Here it is:

That’s almost 250′ tall.

 

My sister and her family before we climbed to the top.

 

Up on top.

 

Steve, getting some images of the falls, looking down.

I did the same:

Here’s a description of the top of the falls, taken from St Cybi’s Well:

As he came around past the rock outcrop, the sound from the falls increased. There was the distant rumble from the bottom of the first long drop, but closer now were the sounds of water scrambling over rock and root, gathering in the small pools at the top before the plunge. Darnell made his way to the last of these pools, near the edge of the cliff, and stood there, listening.

He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and relaxed, opening himself as he had tried to do at St Cybi’s and St Seiriol’s, allowing rather than reaching, feeling rather than thinking.

And he felt something. A whisper in his mind. A whisper as though someone were speaking his name. A whisper of invitation, to step through the wind and over the edge of the cliff, to come to freedom. It was a beckoning, a subtle and supple call to pass through to the other side.

This was the thinness Megan spoke of. He understood it now, at least a little.

Releasing the breath, he slowly opened his eyes, then knelt down to the pool in front of him. The silver-grey sky reflected in the pool had a new shimmer to it, an intensity he had not seen before. He reached out, as he had done before, and placed the palm of his hand against the surface of the water.

There was no slight electric thrill, but neither was there just the crisp coldness of a mountain stream. Rather, there was a vibrancy, almost a … depth … there, more than the few inches of water in the pool would suggest. And while the roar of the falls to his left called loudly, it was the trickle of water coming from his right which whispered to him. He stood, and followed it further up the mountain.

After hiking back down to the base of the falls, we enjoyed a snack in the little tea shop, then headed back to our cottage. The magic of the day continued, as we watched clouds form midway down the mountain:

The next day we decided to visit Caernarfon castle, the massive fortress in the north Wales town of the same name. This one:

Some of my images:

And from displays inside one of the main towers:

Time enjoying the castle was followed up with lunch on the castle square:

That afternoon, we went to St Cybi’s Well, itself:

The main bathing pool.

 

The well source, itself, behind the bathing pool.

 

“Author’s selfie.”

 

Jim Downey

 



Excerpt.

It’s been a couple of months. Let’s have a bit from the current chapter I’m working on.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was full dark before he passed through Llangynog again, and headed up the Tanat valley. It was just past the first quarter Moon, and the sky was clear and brilliant. One of the things he always loved about visiting Wales was that the light pollution was minimal and he could see the stars almost as well as when he was on a shuttle run. About halfway up the valley to Pennant Melangell he stopped the Rover, shut it off and got out.

He stood there, leaning back against the cold metal and glass, and looked up, letting his eyes adjust. Slowly, more stars emerged, and he was able to trace the passage of several satellites in low orbit. There were plenty that he couldn’t see from the ground, ‘darks’ which were in the service of different intelligence agencies and military forces, but he knew they were there, watching, listening, perhaps even waiting to hunt on command.

And it struck him just how much this echoed something Megan had told him less than three weeks previously: “Look at it with new eyes,” she had said. “Try and see it as the believers see it.”

Was this the same thing?

He could pull out his hand-held, call up the appropriate app, and hold the camera pointed at the sky, and it would show him the satellites his eyes couldn’t see. But to do so would necessarily block his direct vision, his direct experience of the real sky above.

He stuck his hands in the pockets of his jacket to protect them from the cold, and relaxed a little as he leaned against the vehicle. For now, he’d just take in the whole of the now-visible Milky Way as it arced high above.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This image will give you an idea of how dark the skies can be in Mid-Wales:

Wales Dark Skies photo WalesLightPollutionMap.jpg

Jim Downey



Taking stock.

I decided that I needed to go through and re-read the entirety of St Cybi’s Well so far, start to finish, just as a way to refresh all the different elements of it in my head and to get an overall picture. While I regularly bounce back and forth in the text to make sure I’m getting this or that specific detail correct, it’s good to get a complete overview now and then. Being at the halfway point in the actual writing (though with all the planning and prep work the book is more like 3/4 complete), this seemed like a good time to do it.

So over the weekend, I did.

I’m happy to say that I’m pleased with it. Perhaps to be expected, since I am the author. But usually I’m very critical of my own writing, and seldom think that it is as good as it should be.

Anyway.

A year ago I gave a preliminary chapter list, and said that I had about 23,000 words of notes and descriptions. Well, I still have the notes and descriptions (and I am still very happy using Scrivener for the organizational aspects), but I now have a solid 55,000 words of actual book done. Here’s the actual title list so far:

  • Prelude: Cardiff
  • Chapter 1: Pennant Melangell
  • Chapter 2: St. Winefride’s Well
  • Chapter 3: St. Seiriol’s Well
  • Chapter 4: Snowdon
  • Chapter 5: Ffynnon Gybi
  • Chapter 6: Pistyll Rhaeadr
  • Chapter 7: Dinas Maelor
  • Chapter 8: Pentre Ifan
  • Chapter 9: St. Non’s Chapel

And the title of the chapter I’m currently writing is Y Garn Goch. These are all real, actual places, and you can look them up online if you want. In fact, each chapter opens with a brief passage from an online site (cited) giving a description/history of each location. So far some of the ‘beta readers’ have really liked this , where others … haven’t. At least not so much.

Oh, speaking of that, I could stand to have a couple new people take a look at the book so far and tell me what they think. If you’re interested, drop me a note.

Just thought I’d share this little progress report.

 

Jim Downey

PS: Remember, there’s just until this Friday to get your bid in to be immortalized in St. Cybi’s Well!



Another excerpt.

This is from the working draft of Chapter One: Pennant Melangell

“C’mon in,” she said, unlocking the door and stepping inside. They passed through the porch, into the church itself. Just inside she stopped, turned on the lights. With a sweep of her arm, she gestured across the interior of the space. “Now, where do you go?”

Darnell furrowed his brow, scanned the interior. “What do you mean?”

“You want to be healed. Where do you go?”

“Well,” he hesitated. “Well, to the Shrine?”

“You know the legend of St. Melangell. What if you didn’t?”

He looked around. “The frieze?”

She nodded. “All these places tell a story. Sometimes it is just in the layout of the building or what is left of it. Sometimes it is represented in paintings, friezes, or stained glass. You have to understand the story of the place before you can hope to use it.”

“An instruction manual.”

“Of a sort. Some of it will be intuitive – these are built spaces, created by other humans. And so in some sense just part of your heritage. But some of it will be based on symbolism which is drawn from a different culture than what we’re used to now. It may take a little while before your brain adjusts, and sees the proper cues.”

“Learn the language.”

“Close. More like learning the patterns. The rituals.”

“I’m not looking to get religion, sis.”

She considered him. “I know. Think of religion to be just one interpretation of the text. First you need to learn to read. Interpretation can come later, when you’re more fluent.”

Back to work.

 

Jim Downey



An excerpt.

No, not from St. Cybi’s Well.  Not exactly, anyway. Rather, from a travelogue I wrote following my 2006 trip to Wales. This is how I describe the small chapel of Pennant Melangell, which is the site where a lot of the book will be based:

The shrine is to St. Melangell, supposedly one of the earliest such shrines in northern Europe.  It’s been nicely restored, using new local materials to recreate missing pieces, but in such a fashion as to be clear what is old and what is new.  Yeah, that’s the professional book conservator talking there – I appreciate good craftsmanship when I see it.  Evidently the shrine had been pitched (literally) into a local ditch during the Reformation, but was (much) later recovered, then even later properly restored.

The rest of the chapel is stunning, though in an honest and simple way.  It has seen multiple alterations and revisions in the last 800 years (big surprise), but still maintains a sense of what it is all about.  And what it is all about is grace.  No, not in the strictly Christian sense of the term, but in something older, something deeper . . . dare I say in the sense the early Christians wanted to appropriate?

Here we get into what I was talking about when I said that this trip was partly a spiritual quest.  The Celts had notions of holiness tied up with location, of ‘thin’ places where the boundaries between this reality and the other side came together.  You’ll frequently find a river, stream, or spring at such a location.  The whole valley of the Tanat has that feeling to it, but it seems to be particularly strong here, where the young river wraps itself around the church grounds.  The rough circle of the churchyard is bounded by a coarse wall, more like an earthwork than anything.  More importantly, while the wall is higher than either the interior or the exterior ground, the interior is on a slight rise, a slight dome with the chapel at the apex.  It’s almost like it is a lens of earth, focusing spiritual energy.  And that Big Damned Yew tree?  It isn’t the only one.  There are several others of almost the same age at other points on the wall, the anchors of the lens, both to the earth and to the sky.

So, go.  If you make it to Wales, and have an afternoon or a morning to spare, go.  In the coming travelogues I will have other places you might want to visit, each one special in its own way.  But go to Pennant Melangell.  Make a donation of a few pounds if you can spare ’em.  Avowed atheist that I am, I now carry a wallet with a religious inscription that I got at Pennant Melangell, from the self-service/honor system selection of items in the office.  And yes, I even paid for it.

Just thought I would share that passage. Trust me, you’ll see a lot more about this place over the coming year.

 

Jim Downey