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Echoes of the Holy Land Haunt Eryri’s Peaks

20 Mar 2022 8 minute read
Dinorwic Sunrise by Bold Frontiers is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Ant Heald

People go to Snowdonia for its wildness. We saw them, emerging from the mist, clad in drizzle-glistened head-to-toe Goretex, trekking poles clacking.

Perhaps they had chosen the off-season to avoid the less-than-wild experience of being passed by the rack-and-pinion trains that have chugged to the mountain summit almost every summer season since the Easter of 1896 (this year because of track maintenance, they will only go as far as the Clogwyn station, three-quarters of the way to the summit).

We had children in tow, some too small for hill-hiking, some older, but too attached to civilisation’s comforts to branch out beyond those tourist traps that remain set outside summer.

One of these, while the Snowdon railway limited itself to shunting carriages round the depot in preparation for its seasonal reopening, is the Llanberis narrow gauge steam railway, this year celebrating its 50th anniversary.

It trundles languidly along the northern shore of Llyn Padarn, timorously tickling Yr Wyddfa’s feet. Covid inspired changes to the pricing structure now mean that advance booking is only by the whole carriage.

At £26 this is better value than the old family ticket, and offers forty minutes’ shelter from the rain, and the opportunity to travel several miles along the lakeside and back to get to the National Slate Museum by steam, instead of a hundred yards or so on foot.

The museum deserves more than that snide aside, but we didn’t have time to do it full justice, and with little ones to supervise you never get further than the first few words of an information board.

Nevertheless, it managed to serve notice of a few things that any visitor to this area would do well to know. Much of the ‘unspoilt’ beauty of this landscape is, quite literally, spoil. Many of the great hills looming up from the roadside, forming the foothills of the Snowdon massif, are in fact giant piles of waste from the now largely defunct slate industry, heaved by a lot of back-breaking toil and a little engineering ingenuity, from hills that are no longer there, having been blasted out, hacked apart and carted off to make the roofs of countless terraces in English industrial cities, as well as the walls of the workers’ cottages and chapels that punctuate the interstices of this landscape.

Capel Sardis

Perhaps it is the chapels that most captured my imagination on the latest of many visits to the area, but my first for perhaps a couple of decades.

The experience of visiting this area now, travelling from our home in the south of the country, is dominated less by the scenic beauty than by the ribbons of traffic-clogged tarmac that must be navigated through small towns, where the by-pass and the dual carriageway have been either resisted, or refused, before branching out into nodes that modern technical aides have either ignored, or been confounded by.

‘Please use our instructions, not your Sat-Nav’, the Air BnB hosts had warned. Naturally, I ignored them, thinking that I and Google Maps would be cleverer than your standard in-car system.

I was wrong, of course, and finding ourselves heading in the opposite direction to our destination we had to loop back round to Deiniolen to revert to the point where we could “enter Dinorwic, turn left (opposite a bus stop), up a hill past Chapel Sardis and you’ll find us, the next house on the left.”

I didn’t think much about Capel Sardis until we walked past it, on the way to another chapel that is now a hikers’ lodge and café, and in turn past yet another chapel that is now a luxury holiday apartment (sleeps eight).

Chapels used to be categorised by Christian denomination — Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, Methodist, Wesleyan Methodist, Independent Methodist — now it’s by branching forms of use and disuse from the relatively rare category of still functioning for worship, through conversion to houses (most likely as holiday ‘homes’), hostels, cafés, and craft workshops, to dereliction from which, sadly, not all are rescued by repurposing.

Beatific visions

So many of these chapels, as befits the austere severity of the brand of Christianity in which they were born have Old Testament names, redolent more of the fear of the Lord of Hosts than friendship with Christ.

They brought the topography of the Holy Land with its solemn covenants, threats of destruction, and beatific visions into Wales, many of them built on or under looming summits, and named after their biblical counterparts.

There are numerous chapels named after Horeb, the mountain of Moses’ burning bush, Nebo and Pisgah, where Moses looked down onto the promised land, and of course Seion, or Sion, Welsh spellings of mount Zion, the city of David: Jerusalem builded here in Wales’s slate-grey rugged land.

Sardis, I might once have known, was a hilltop city in what is now Turkey, home to one of the seven churches of Asia addressed by St John in the Book of Revelation, that most prophetic and apocalyptic of the New Testament books.

The quiet decline through increasingly dwindling and elderly congregations into disuse, then repurposing for residential or leisure use was not the end-time that its fiery preachers and spirit-filled pew-bursting congregations could have expected in those heady revival days either side of the turn of the twentieth century.

Spirit of revival

I have a complicated reaction to seeing old chapels fall into disrepair or turned to secular use. They are places where at one time, in another long-cooled crucible of non-conformism in Northern England, I would myself have sung lusty but tuneful hymns, yearning for the spirit of revival that swept through Wales in 1904, and which I was taught about by my brother-in-law, for many years the minister of a still thriving Baptist chapel just like Capel Sardis isn’t.

After several changes of denomination, including a spell where I thought I would become an Anglo-Catholic priest, I eventually wafted so far up the candle that my faith, though never quite extinguished, became a shimmering vapour, an oscillation that barely, but still significantly, filters my sense of the plain and everyday world, like the deserted pews, seen through the faintly rippling plain blown glass of the chapel windows, that have been piled together in the heart of the building to allow space for surveyors to check for damp in the walls, bats in the cornices, and rotting roof timbers.

Capel Sardis is ‘Ar Werth’, of course, though the other side of the board translates those words into the language of the people who will almost certainly buy it: ‘For Sale’. With planning permission for conversion to four apartments. I think little more of it. There is no blue plaque.

The owners of the neighbouring property where we are staying mention it only as that landmark in their directions. None of the guidebooks and leaflets about the locality refer to it. Yet this chapel was once known throughout the country.

The Welsh language Seren Cymru newspaper in 1905 reported that “the Revival has reached old Sardis, the highest chapel in Wales, the church that had the honour of raising the giants … who played such a prominent part in the Revival of 1859. The Quarrymen have awoken at last. The sound of prayers and singing rises from the old quarry cabins like a melody in the air; the oaths and the swearing and the curses have been driven away. What is heard in every part of the Quarry is talk of the Revival. The dinner hour is an hour of prayer almost throughout the works, where there are over 3,000 workers.”

Hold your land

At the Slate Museum we had seen three reconstructed quarrymen’s cottages: one from ‘the golden age of slate’ around the time of that first mid-19th-century Revival  when Capel Sardis was still young, another from the bitter strike period of the early 20th century, when the fires of the Great Revival swept along with the awakening of the labour movement, and the third from the 1960’s when slate quarrying, religious fervour, and the Welsh language and culture that were embedded in both seemed to be in terminal decline.

‘There are no traitors in this house’ reads a sign (in Welsh, of course) in the window of that middle house. Indeed: the treachery lay elsewhere and continues to do so.

Driving home at the end of our short break I see a slogan painted on a boulder by the roadside nearby: Dal dy Dir. Welsh speaking friends will later tell me it is the equivalent of the phrase, ‘stand your ground’.

But it seems to me that for once Google Translate’s more literal ‘hold your land’ might well be more fitting. Because ‘land’ is more than mere ground. More even the stones and slates dug from and raised upon it; more than the hearths, pulpits, and bars built within.

This land is ours who make it our home, to hold and to cherish, whatever our heritage, whatever our destiny.

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