Review: A Celtic Pilgrimage is a is a calming book that can give even an agnostic a spiritual uplift
This account of four months spent walking from Wales, via Somerset, Devon and Cornwall to Brittany (and via ferry, of course) and then back again is an amiable account of a gentle, life-affirming ramble, full of prayer, history and reminders of the constant kindness of strangers.
With a rucksack on her back, along with the most lightweight of lightweight tents, Anne Hayward took to roads, bridlepaths and occasional motorway underpasses in a very modern equivalent to the pilgrimages of old.
She traversed industrial estates and city centres as well as open country on her journey in the footsteps of the Celtic saints as she shone some light on the Dark Ages and the early transmission of the Christian message by saints who often took the same roads.
Hayward found plenty to wonder at along the way. She visited the Wye-side village of Brockweir and found its Moravian Church, established there because of concern about the prevalence of alcoholism among the river’s boatmen. In the West Country, she travelled along the cusp of former Celtic lands and Anglo-Saxon territories, scenes of battle but also of peaceful cultural assimilations.
In Crediton in Devon she traced the history of one saint whose family straddled both camps: Wynfrith was believed to have had a Celtic mother and a Saxon father. Under a different name, Boniface, he went on to become the patron saint both of Germany and the Netherlands.
Indeed she finds that many saints, their reputations and their cults connect disparate places, so that visiting the cathedral in Tréguier in Brittany, dedicated to St Tugdual connects her with St.Tudwal’s islands off the north Wales coast, seagull-strewn rocks which are also named after him.
Then there’s Carantec, to whom a chapel on a tidal island in Brittany is dedicated, which is, in turn, connected with St Carannog’s church in Llangrannog on the Ceredigion coast, not to mention St Julitta, patron saint of Lanteglos who is ‘thought to have been the daughter of King Brechan who brought Christianity to North Cornwall from Wales around 500.’
It was studying the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins which marked the beginning of Hayward’s conversion to a committed Christian faith and there’s a sort of rough and ready poetry to the names of the places she finds on her pilgrim’s maps – Stokeinteignhead, Perranzubuloe, Loxton, Christon, Lanteglos-by-Camelford, Roscoff, Blackdown Rings – and she even encounters one village called Advent.
But some of the most interesting names are connected with the Welsh name for river, “afon” as she finds that there are in fact five rivers called Avon in England and one called Dour in Brittany, which clearly connects with “dŵr, the Welsh word for water.
This is the author’s second book about pilgrimage, the first having connected all four corners of Wales as she visited Holywell, Bardsey, St Davids and Llanwit Major. This time she finds ample connections with Wales in many of the places she visits, such as the saints from Wales, Ireland and Brittany who brought the gospel to Cornwall.
Another saintly connection is made at the parish church of Altarnun at the foot of Bodmin Moor, as this so-called Cathedral of the Moor is believed to have been founded by St Non, the mother of St David.
But she also had the opportunity to explore the way in which different churches operate, or mark particular occasions, not least the commemoration of the First World War. Notably, one church tied a black ribbon at the end of an empty pew, seating that would have been filled by soldiers who never returned.
One of the most interesting religious sites Hayward encounters isn’t easily spotted by those driving over the ‘old’ Severn Bridge, being a tiny patch of land which once housed the spartan hermitage of St Twrog and is now called Chapel Rock. But the reader is grateful to her for spotting such places, and harnessing her historian’s training to her faith as she makes footfall in so many interesting places of worship.
Some of them are very much off the beaten track and others are right in the heart of urban centres, such as St Olave’s in Exeter which has now become the place of worship for the local Romanian Orthodox community.
In keeping with the nature of such a pilgrimage of prayer this is a quiet, calming book which allows snippets of the author’s diary entries to breathe, telling of communion and indeed communions with strangers.
Even an agnostic can close its pages with a tiny flutter or draught of spiritual uplift, a feeling that despite the travails of the world, one can be safe in the knowledge that there are more good people out there than bad, that many a church still has its doors open to welcome a passing stranger and that maybe, up there, someone, somewhere is always listening.
A Celtic Pilgrimage by Anne Hayward is published by Y Lolfa and available o buy here.