Letter from Llangybi
Have you ever been in therapy, or something like it, where they ask you to ‘picture a special place’ – somewhere you feel safe and happy? They sometimes offer a suggestion – like a sandy beach, where your troubles fall away.
I have two such places, one is the broad back of the Scots pine at the bottom of my garden, and the other is Ffynnon Llangybi in Gwynedd Eifionydd – the close-cropped grass, the rounded stones embedded in the turf, the water running level with the surrounding plateau.
It is a sensation, as much as a place. Beyond the immediacy of the stream is the old stone building, the leafy oaks and the backdrop of Garn Bentyrch. Perhaps time stands still here, perhaps the Celtic magic of water and stone still hold true.
If Pen Llŷn is imagined as a long arm reaching into the Irish sea, then Llangybi would be in that smooth spot on the inner arm, approaching the wrist. Certainly there is a pulse.
Ffynnon Llangybi (Llangybi well) is credited with being formed when St Cybi struck his staff into the ground at the base of Garn Bentyrch, and the sacred water emerged. Of course, the water has always been there, this Christian version layered over a Celtic pagan source.
On the approach to Ffynnon Llangybi today, we head behind the church and follow the low stone wall, trees rising along the boundary, their leaves tattered, many encased with sage green lichen, the purple blur and red pricks of berries, hips and haws.
Filaments of sunlight dazzle my sunlashes, extending their glare to the blades of grass. As you walk through the gate and down the stone steps you can hear the water running in the bottom of the valley.
Wells have a symbology associated with the all-seeing eye, of fecundity, otherworldliness. This is celebrated in the Irish iconography of the ‘sheela-na-gig’, a goddess who holds her vulva wide open, an entrance to the other world, nature and god combined. She is a source of life, as water is the bringer and sustenance of life.
In archaic times the well was perceived as the eye of a god and the Welsh idiom ‘o lygad y ffynnon’ literally translates as ‘from the eyes of the well’, evoking clarity, truth, something that comes straight from the source.
Dreaming by the well was a way of divining the future, overseen by a female oracle, the keeper of the well. Above all, the well is associated with healing.
The building that stands today was constructed in the eighteenth century at the insistence of the local vicar, who persuaded the landowner to accommodate the pilgrims, convinced as he was of the water’s medicinal properties.
A whole range of ailments were treated here – blindness, lameness, tuberculosis, scurvy and rheumatism. The patients would follow a regimen – sitting in the water for a certain amount of time, then moving next door to rest in beds warmed by the fire. You can keep your Alpine spa retreat, this is a bona fide Celtic original.
Today there is this lucid clarity of air, the chalky pattern of lichen bloom against the stone of the building – roofless but still standing, still square. The room on the right, where the fire was, and the well on the left of the building, where I enter first.
Air, sky, lichen, rock – water underlying it all. The boundaries between objects removed – the clouds’ reflection, blue sky in water, a visual snapshot of the mutability of the essences. The water is present, a constant source, deep throated, and further away the stream rushes toward the sibilant trees.
This is where all the people have gone before you – all the hope – the sick to be cured, the lame, the blind. I thought there would be a vestige of sadness in me, of loss, but there is not, there is just this elemental surge of light and air, a play of the elements, with the resounding surety of stone and earth.
When my exuberance has died down a bit, when I’ve had a cup of tea, I can feel how you might quieten, how this might take you to a portal where the oracle of the well does not seem so fantastic, but rather part of the fabric of the place.
The regimen would require the sick go between these two rooms, over a period of days or weeks. Part of the cure was to drink a concoction of part well-water and part sea-water.
Crutches and wheelbarrows were left at the site, a sign of the well’s efficacy, abandoned by the lame. A blind man spent three weeks here.
In 2020 I permanently lost vision in my right eye, in a ‘rare form of silent glaucoma’ exacerbated by covid. I was quite devastated as this happened at the tail end of a long battle. I know that science saved me from complete sight loss. I know that there is a complex mixture of faith and fear within serious illness, and near-death experience. I don’t understand it and I don’t want to poke it, except occasionally in the light, and from a safe distance.
We walk up the slopes of Garn Bentyrch, through the oak and beech and sit on some mossy rocks. The whole wide vista of Cardigan Bay is before us, from the tip of Penllyn in a blue arc to Harlech, Y Bermo and Tywyn.
We walk down the path, fortified by the ancient roots, a staircase strewn with crisp fallen leaves, arriving back at the well.
‘The water is so clear’ says James ‘I’ll just dip my hand in it.’
And after he has, and I’ve tried to capture the clarity – the tiny shale pebbles beneath the water’s surface, I too stand on the stone, dip my hand in the water, drink some, and splash my right eye.
For a moment I stand there with water running down my face. It is delicious. I could drink it for ever.
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