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Postcard from Lipsi

14 May 2023 4 minute read
Lipsi church, image by Ben Wildsmith

Ben Wildsmith

I’m sensitive that you must become resentful of my weekly missives from the enviable perch of Rhondda Fach, playground of the carefree, so this week’s piece comes to you from Lipsi, an island in the Aegean Sea where you can’t get a slice of corned beef pie for love nor money.

Tramping barely paved roads between one paradisical cove and another, nodding at sage looking goats, and dodging sun-peeled vehicles that wouldn’t pass an MOT in the Valleys even if you were on the council, there remain plenty of features that seem oddly familiar.

For a start-off, how were there ever enough people here to justify the ludicrous number of churches that dot the hillsides, aside from the gigantic one that dominates the only village?

When my mother was on childhood visits ‘back home’ from Birmingham in the 1950s, she soon learned to hide out at Auntie May’s on a Sunday.

Mamgu’s observance of the Sabbath ran to five visits to Ebenezer Chapel down the hill in Tylorstown, and a ban on activities like knitting for the entire household.

Her devotion was a product of the last Revival, in 1905, and despite many demolitions, the sheer volume of chapel buildings in Wales always has me wondering about the fervour that gripped the nation during its successive waves of spiritual awakening.

Religion has fallen so far from favour in modern society that it’s impossible to imagine the sheer energy that drove the construction and use of all these buildings not so long ago.

We are told that court rooms closed down for lack of criminal cases, and pubs emptied as Wales looked to the heavens for salvation from the depredations of industrial exploitation.


There are Greek flags fluttering from many of the hillside churches in Lipsi; sending a clear message that the civic culture of the place is founded on its spiritual character.

The boat that brings you here hugs the Turkish coast and over there flies the star and crescent of the Ottoman Empire that ran this vulnerable little place for 400 years until they were supplanted by the Catholic Italians.

Only in 1948 did the fiercely Orthodox island become part of Greece itself.

The Wi-Fi I’m sending this over is an EU provision that ensures far-flung areas of the community have access to digital infrastructure.

There’s a fragility to places like this that illuminates the purpose of the EU in a way that the UK always seemed to obscure. There are no European flags here, just occasional acknowledgements that helpful initiatives came by way of Brussels.

Power and allegiance shift around us over time. You can, I’ve found, for instance, provoke fury by calling Tylorstown Tip ‘Old Smokey’.

Nuance of style and preference, however, are a different matter from coercion. Telling the difference is an exercise of emotion.

Spidey senses

On my EU-funded internet, I’m reading of a legal challenge to the promotion of Bannau Brycheiniog as the name of our national park near Brecon, and my spidey senses don’t have to be at their peak to discern bullying when I see it.

There is no scenario whereby the foregrounding of Cymraeg is the remotest threat to either the English language, or to financial interests in the nation. To my shame I don’t have the language, but the more of it I see, the more I acquire and the richer I become.

Our chapels may lie largely empty nowadays, but the nonconformist instinct that birthed them is an inheritance we can draw on if we choose.

Greece, you might remember, was supposed to be the most oppressed of all EU nations – the term ‘Brexit’ was a variation on ‘Grexit’ from the referenda that decided Greece’s continued membership.

I don’t see enforced language or flags here though, any more than I saw them anywhere in the UK before we exited the union. In Wales, on the other hand, I see an insecure, overbearing UK Establishment going into conniptions if we so much as change the name of a leisure destination.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to continue my negotiations with the nymph Calypso, who is threatening my detention here for seven years.

You can find more of The Shrewd View and the rest of Ben’s writing on Nation.Cymru by following his links on this map

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1 year ago

Erthygl iawn, lad

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