It’s natural to ask anyone who claims they are on a pilgrimage `where are you going?’. It’s also natural to ask `where do you come from?’ or `where is your home?’. A pilgrimage is, after all, a journey from the everyday world to a special or sacred place and back again. The pilgrim usually hopes to have gained something from the sacred place that will enrich their life when they return to the everyday world. The one important exception to this is ourselves, as members of the Church, on pilgrimage towards the Kingdom of God. When the destination is reached, there is no return in question. But on pilgrimage in this life, return is the norm.
In reflecting on my bicycle pilgrimage to join the Holywell Community, a few possible answers to these questions came to mind. One option is to think of myself as going to a series of sacred sites from one home, Sheffield, and `returning’ to a new home in Abergavenny. This way of thinking has some advantages. For one thing, it means my pilgrimage is completed. For another thing, I can point to obvious places and acts in those places: sitting in various churches, praying offices, lighting candles, reading about and praying for the intercession of the relevant saints for success in the coming year.
The other option is to think of this pilgrimage as only just beginning. Unlike in a traditional community, members of the Holywell Community do not make life commitments. It is designed for people to take time out to explore their next steps. It is itself a kind of sacred place to which people come, leave behind their everyday lives, and then return, hopefully changed. My pilgrimage is then, I prefer to think, to the Holywell Community and to a year of Benedictine work and prayer. The sites I visited on the way were then a preparation for my arrival.
Enough theory. I’d like to share some highlights of my journey through Wales. The initial plan had been to ride all the way from Sheffield. Unfortunately, I had to settle for a train to Bangor for the first leg of the journey. So, at about 5pm on the 3rd of August, I set out from the Bangor train station. I thought I’d begin by going in the wrong direction and visiting Holyhead and the site of St Cybi’s monastery there (at St Cybi’s parish church). By about 8pm, the clouds were descending fast and the light was gone. Worried that I’d be thrown off my bike by oncoming traffic, I knocked on a farmhouse around 20 miles into my ride and asked if I could camp in some woods on their property. After negotiating the placement of my camping hammock with some nearby cows, I heated up a can of beans and veg sausages and climbed into my sleeping bag for my first night outdoors.
I was anxious not to overstay my welcome in the woods, but not so anxious that I skipped the chance to cook myself some porridge and brew some coffee in a small moka pot (a vital camping supply). I set out around 8am and arrived in Holyhead around 9:30. Luckily, St Cybi’s were having a coffee morning and choir practice so I could have a look around and briefly pray in the Lady Chapel. I spent some time chatting with the local congregation, who sent me on my way filled with coffee and biscuits and with their good wishes. I spent some time on the beach and then left at around 1pm.
On my way back to Bangor, I came across the church of St. Peulan (looked after by Friends of Friendless Churches). The font (pictured) was particularly impressive. According to some, it was used as the altar before the Normans. I said sext from the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (One reason that I’m attracted to this office is its simplicity. It fits in a small, very portable, volume.) I started to really feel like I was headed for a religious community when I heard the sounds of the psalms bouncing off the walls at St Peulan’s.
For my second night, I set up at a campground a few miles south-west of Bangor. Sunday morning came. After stumbling across a coffee morning at St Cybi’s and finding St Peulan’s open, I thought I wouldn’t have any trouble finding a Eucharist to attend. Unfortunately, I failed! (That said, I spent over an hour on my phone trying to find one. To anyone listening: please, please keep up-to-date service times available online.) I passed through Caernarfon Castle and ended the day in sight of Harlech Castle at a particularly nice and friendly campsite. The view was incredible, but the climb up through Snowdonia was the hardest of the ride (with a few nasty 20% sections). The pressure caused a spoke to break in my rear wheel, which, in turn, caused the wheel to spin in an increasingly eccentric fashion over the next few days.
The next day I visited Harlech Castle (and St Tanwg’s parish church) in the morning and had another ride down the coast. I had lunch in Barmouth, which was packed due to heatwave temperatures and pushed on through Dolgellau up another few hundred meters and down through sheep, cattle, and forestry to a river-side campsite just before Machynlleth. I only realised it was the Feast of the Transfiguration once I was set up at the campsite (another pilgrimage failure).
A leisurely morning was spent waiting out the rain in Machynlleth. I spent a few hours in a cafe charging my phone, visited the small museum at the site of Owain Glyndŵr’s parliament during the revolt of 1400-1415, and spoke with some parishioners at St Peter’s (once St Cybi’s) cleaning up after a flower festival. One of Glyndŵr’s aims was the independence of the Church in Wales from the Church in England. So at least some of his aims have be achieved (at least, they have as far as we Anglicans are concerned). Riding out of Machynlleth in the afternoon sent me up to the highest point on National Cycle Route Eight. I then had a nice long downhill to the Llanidloes and the River Severn. Neighbouring campers seemed to take pity on the weird man alone in a hammock and fed me pizza and chips. I hope to be able to pass on this hospitality in some way as part of the Benedictine ethos of the Holywell Community.
I had a slow morning in Llanidloes. I finally found a bike shop which would consider re-tuning my rear wheel (thanks Llani Bikes!). Highlights of my wandering included the parish church of St Idloes (containing a stone arcade from Abbey Cwm Hir, a medieval Cistercian monastery) and a beautiful timber-framed market hall with a stone which Wesley stood on to preach on multiple occasions. One of the least exciting rides then followed, a short ride to Builth Wells (I tried to stop earlier, but an over-officious campsite owner refused to let me use my hammock on his site. No link for them!). Thankfully, the campsite in Builth Wells were much more accommodating. It was here I saw my first road sign for Abergavenny.
Another short ride took me to Hay-on-Wye, where I treated myself to a hotel room for the night. I managed to restrict myself to only four books. Unfinished business. The next day, on the way from Hay-on-Wye over the Gospel pass to Abergavenny, I learnt a new title of Our Lady: Our Lady of Capel-y-Ffin. This title comes from a series of apparitions claimed by members of Fr Ignatius’s monastery in Capel-y-Ffin. This title was present on icons in both in St Mary’s in Hay-on-Wye and at the small chapel of the same name in Capel-y-Ffin itself. I’ll be hearing more about this on the Fr Ignatius pilgrimage (pilgrimages within pilgrimages!) this Saturday.
After seven days of riding, I dropped down into Abergavenny. Soon enough, I met Fr Mark at the tithe barn, rushed to the community house for a shower, and joined in at Vespers at 4:30pm.
Were there any advantages to journeying by bike? Pilgrimages can be, and often are, made by coach or car. This is, of course, good! Many are unable to go cycling for a week and are not in any sense lesser pilgrims. One way in which a longer journey, one measured in days or weeks rather than hours, is useful is that it creates a clear psychological break between the everyday world and the destination. I found during my ride that the usual habits of thought and action associated with my life in Sheffield began to fade, being replaced with a different pattern of thoughts concerning campsites, rest stops, bodily strains, and bicycle maintenance. This space between home and destination has, I think, helped to put me in a better mental space to begin my year in Abergavenny.
I’d like to express my gratitude to Bishop Richard (our Episcopal Visitor), Bishop Dominic (who commissioned us in Bishop Richard’s place), Fr Mark (the Prior), Fr Tom (the Sub Prior), Br Seb, previous members of the Holywell Community, and everyone else I’ve met since arriving in Abergavenny. The welcome I have received has been very special to me and I thank you all for it. I’d also like to say how sad I was to leave Sheffield. I’ll miss the many friends I made there in both the university and at St Matthew’s Carver Street. I tended to keep church and non-church spheres quite separate in Sheffield. That will not be possible this year as I wander around Abergavenny wearing the community’s habit.
Finally, a litany of Welsh saints that I came across on my ride:
St Cybi, ora pro nobis
St Peulan, ora pro nobis
St Tanwg, ora pro nobis
St Idloes, ora pro nobis
St Curig, ora pro nobis
St Gwrthwl, ora pro nobis
St Cynog, ora pro nobis
– Br Josh