When I was in college, my friend was in England student teaching. When she invited me to fly over and meet her and travel the United Kingdom, I thought there was no way I could afford it. She told me we’d be staying in hostels.
I had never heard of hostels before. I had to join the association (for an annual membership) and then I could pay a small fee and spend the night in a safe, clean, dormitory. The Youth Hostel Association was for young adults, between the ages of 16 (without a parent) and 25. This is less common now. At the time, they also suggested that before you stay at a foreign hostel you should have a dry-run at a local, American run one. I did not do this, and it worked out fine for me. Of course, I haven’t gone hosteling in a couple of decades, so I can only imagine how much has changed. Part of that was because of my friend, who was the expert in my opinion, having been in England and traveled about quite a bit during her days off from teaching.
I’ve often talked and written about how profoundly life-altering it was when I returned from my first (and at the time I thought only) trip to Wales. It was barely forty-eight hours and yet it left an indelible mark on my soul. It led me down new paths that branched off and created new adventures and journeys within these past thirty-five years. If I recall correctly, that first summer was spent working at (the now defunct) Waldenbook’s bookstore, where as an employee I received a 33% discount, and folks wonder why I had less money at the end of the summer than I started with. I was straightening and dusting books, and performing an additional wide plethora of mindless tasks when I noticed a small mass market paperback book high on a shelf. It was the title that drew my attention: Here Be Dragons. I thought it would be fantastical and in line with my hobby of playing Dungeons & Dragons, but I was to be disappointed in that, and extremely gratified to discover that it was a novel based in medieval Wales centering on the life and world of the Prince of Wales, Llywelyn Fawr.
I was drawn into this story quickly. This is the only book that I’ve owned three copies of: one that I read several times and gave to someone to read, a new copy to replace that one, and a digital copy for my Kindle. There were two subsequent novels, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, now know more or less as The Welsh Trilogy. I was all in.
The author, Sharon Kay Penman had a way of bringing me into the medieval age, and I read the rest of her books – all of them – voraciously. Not one was a disappointment. One of the things that drew me so deep was Penman’s Author’s Notes, where she discussed and explained her researching process and she defined some of the things that seemed implausible but that had in fact actually happened.
Lady Joanna’s affair, the burning of the prince’s bed, and the execution of her lover. True.
Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, the prince’s son was held hostage by King John and the terms of his release were detailed in the Magna Carta; yes, THE Magna Carta. True.
Eleanor de Montfort kidnapped by pirates. True.
And much more.
Earlier this week, I discovered that Ms. Penman died in early 2021. I am heartbroken, but I’ve discovered her last published book, The Land Beyond the Sea, which I began this afternoon. The memories of reading her well-researched and well-developed books will continue to inspire me as I continue to gain insight into the process of writing and the joy of reading.
“We’d become aliens in our own land,” he’d warned, “denied our own laws, our own language, even our yesterdays, for a conquered people are not allowed a prideful past. Worst of all, we’d be leaving our children and grandchildren a legacy of misery and loss, a future bereft of hope.” ― Sharon Kay Penman, The Reckoning
“But in all honesty, I do not find it so peculiar a notion, that a Welshman should rule Wales.” ― Sharon Kay Penman, Falls the Shadow
“Poor Wales. So far from Heaven, so close to England.” ― Sharon Kay Penman, Here Be Dragons
“Fretting about time’s passing will not slow it down one whit.” ― Sharon Kay Penman, Here be Dragons
“for each age interprets the past in the light of its own biases.” ― Sharon Kay Penman, Falls the Shadow
Today is the feast day of my personal saint, the one I chose for my confirmation, St. Elen of Caernarfon. She and her homeland has touched me in many ways, and I was privileged a few years ago to pilgrimage to one of her holy wells in the small town of Dolwyddelan in North Wales. She is the patron of traveling and travelers and ironically, when I visited the town of Dolwyddelan and the Castle there, I was walking distance (even for me) from my future saint’s holy well. There are so many connections that I shouldn’t be surprised anymore.
St. Elen is my personal saint and patron. I’ve written about her on a pretty regular basis, so I’ll toss in a few links below to learn more.
In 2017, I was able to pilgrimage to one of her holy wells in Wales, this one in the town of Dolwyddelan. The picture I’m sharing will be one side of a prayer card I’m creating. I haven’t gotten the prayer finished yet, but I didn’t want to let today pass without acknowledgement.
Ffynnon Elen, Dolwyddelan – This was the article from Wellhopper where I discovered the existence of this well. I’m indebted to the writer for the information that allowed me to pilgrimage there.
Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.
– NIDO QUBEIN
As I contemplated this month’s Inspire post I began with the discovery of this quotation, which led me to the three photos that appear below.
I think this quotation is perfect for this time of year, especially in this second year of pandemic as things are slowly returning to some semblance of normal. Some of us have been lost in a fog of uncertainty and some of us remain in that fog as we await our turns for vaccines, for the return of jobs, the new rules for openings, community gatherings as it becomes safer, and yet, we still wear masks (as we should), we still wash our hands frequently and use hand sanitizer (as we absolutely should), we continue to maintain our distance (as we should), and we’re in a space of feeling the year is passing us by (again).
We need to look at our present circumstances, and then start.
The Easter season is upon us, spring is springing up all around us, Ramadan begins this evening. It’s as if a new year is dawning, and there’s no reason not to treat this time as a new year, setting goals, making choices, smelling the flowers on a few new paths.
The photos below are three places I never expected to be. Having taken the photos is proof that I was actually in those places, but to me it still remains extraordinary that I was actually, physically there. Gazing at these three photos show me the magic that can happen and the magic that is inherently in a place.
The first photo is of Glenariff Falls in Northern Ireland. We found it quite by accident while looking for a place to eat – there is a restaurant behind where I was standing to take the photo. What was remarkable is that our cousins had given us directions to this very place, only we hadn’t realized it until after we’d eaten and went to look for the falls they’d recommended. These woods have a fairy feel and there are reminders of fairies throughout them including in the falls themselves. It was very peaceful and soothing just standing and watching the water fall from the top.
This second photo is just a road sign; however I was glad to get it when we couldn’t get to the town. We were running late to get to our hotel, still about an hour or more away, and it was raining, and at the beginning of a trip we always think there is more time to return than there really is. The sign depicts the longest town name, shortened for the sign as: Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll; also known as LlanfairPG, but known in its full glory as:
This last photo is of the Menai Suspension Bridge. We drove across it from the island of Angelsey (known as Ynys Mon in Welsh) to get to mainland Wales and on to our destination. When I traveled alone to Wales in 2009 this bridge was the source of my greatest anxiety. I had truly wanted to go to Angelsey; I had heard of its beauty and there was an ancient cairn that I wanted to visit, but I could not make myself drive over this bridge. I could see it from my hostel along the Menai Strait, and I thought about for the entire three days I stayed there. I’d walk out to the Promenade and stare at the water below the stone wall, and then stare down the strait at this bridge. Every time I thought I might I didn’t. I just couldn’t do it.
As with the ferry that got me to Wales in 2017, this bridge got me to the mainland where I could complete my pilgrimage. I wasn’t driving, but it was still a monumental achievement and it’s part of one of the places that I started.
There are no such things as coincidences. I was reminded of that on Wednesday while on a Celtic Day of Reflection retreat. Carl Jung called these synchronicity. Some of us refer to fate and destiny. Whatever we call it, the world is interconnected in so many ways and those random occurrences float in and around us from who we sit next to in grade school to joining a book club, and including the world of the internet which has only brought us closer together, gathering with people who share the same hobbies, music, art, and so many other topics and then quietly moving beyond them.
In 1986, I was a college junior. I was dating a boy. Until I wasn’t.
Later that year, my friend who was student teaching in England invited me to join her there for winter break. Other than a lack of money there was no reason to say no. It wasn’t like I had a boyfriend. So I joined her. She made all the plans.
I arrived on the last day of 1986, ringing in the New Year in London’s Trafalgar Square, and we were off. Wednesday’s Celtic retreat talked quite a bit about thin spaces and in a place as old as the island of Britain they are everywhere the eye can see, and more likely beyond the eye’s sight. You will instinctively know them if you’ve ever experienced them. Stonehenge is one of those places. From the first sight of the giant monoliths, I felt something. The past swirls around it and blends with the present, and in the cold dusk of January with my breath visible amongst the stones, it was almost as if I was in another time long, long ago but also right now. It was visceral, and it defies description. Indeed that is another story for another time.
From there our itinerary had us traveling west to Wales. All of it was wonderful. Adventurous, thrilling, exciting with newness around every corner. I took it all in, and enjoyed every moment in every space.
And soon we arrived in Wales. Up until that moment I thought of Wales as an extension of England – don’t tell that to the Welsh – the thought is an unforgivable sin. The sun was setting, we were walking, trying to arrive at the youth hostel before it got really dark. However, something changed. The air? The sky? The way my foot fell on the pavement? All of the above?
From the minute I set foot in Wales, I felt something beyond anything I’d ever experienced before, including that recent excursion at Stonehenge. I’ve always believed in the supernatural, the spiritual, I’ve seen ghosts and Wales was…I don’t know what Wales was, but it changed my life completely in those few moments.
It was piercing, this strong feeling that permeated every fiber of my being. I felt an ache, a calling to me as if I’d returned to a home I never knew. There was something special and the word special wasn’t enough to describe the wonder. In that moment, I became Welsh in my own way. Something mystical changed in me. Magical.
It set me on a path of a mental immersion into Wales, the Welsh people, the land, the culture, even the language. It was through the language many years later that I met a native speaker who helped me translate some fiction I was writing and through that friendship that he was able to guide me where to go when the sudden opportunity to travel appeared, and this was a key in one of those not-coincidences. He recommended Caernarfon and visiting its castle. This suggestion shaped my whole trip. I stayed at a hostel within the remaining walls of the walled town. Emerging out from under the stone arch onto the Promenade, sniffing the sea air of the Menai Strait, turning just a tiny bit left, and there, right there in front of me was the huge stone wall of one of the towers of the Castle. It was spectacular.
While Caernarfon Castle is in Wales, it is not a Welsh castle; it was not built by the medieval Welsh. A few days later, upon leaving Caernarfon I went to a truly Welsh castle, Dolwyddelan. While the castle wasn’t there at the time, this was the land where Llywelyn the Great was born and grew up in the 11th century. This was one of his many strongholds where he commanded most of Gwynedd, in the North of Wales. He built the castle in the 13th century and over the years it has been added to and restored until finally falling into disrepair.
The mist and the rain of that day only added to the mystery and the mystical. Everything is green and there are gatherings of sheep in every corner of every field or so it seems. Some were so close to the road that I thought the car would hit one or two and I honestly don’t know how they were missed. They were close enough to touch their wool from the window.
In the interim, between this solo adventure in 2009 and our family visit in 2017, I went through some emotional upheaval and through that (a much longer story than what will fit here) I joined the Catholic Church, going through the RCIA program and receiving all the sacraments of to become fully joined with the church. Like the 2009 trip to Wales, my path as a Catholic was filled with an open mind and no regrets; no second thoughts about my conversion. It is the only thing I’ve done in my life that did not foster second thoughts and questions of my conviction. That in itself was an important sign in support of my choice.
But the coincidences were not through with me yet.
While going through the RCIA process, I had need to choose a saint for confirmation. It became my predisposition to find a Welsh saint. There are not that many but I felt strongly about my Welsh connection. I had narrowed my decision down to three saints (one of whom was Welsh) and in choosing St. Elen, her patronage of travelers and introducing the monastic church to Wales were both high on my list to affirming that she was who I wanted the connection through my confirmation. There were two things that really sealed it for me. The first was something that should have stood out to me from the start and that is that Ellen is my mother’s middle name. How I didn’t see it from the beginning is beyond me. The second is how the saint is known in Wales: as St. Elen of Caernarfon.
That place I’d never heard of before my friend suggested it seemingly out of the blue.
It only cemented my choice.
I tried to do research about St. Elen, but sadly there is very little. She is often conflated with St. Helena of Constantinople, mainly because of their similar names and their sons’ similar names, Cystennin and Constantine the Great. In this research I discovered a holy well named for St. Elen and was shocked and astounded to find out that its location was in Dolwyddelan, just down the road, walking distance from Dolwyddelan Castle where I’d actually been five years before.
When we made our family trip to Northern Ireland in 2017 I decided that we would add in a pilgrimage for me to visit St. Elen’s holy well in Dolwyddelan.
It had come full circle. Arriving for the first time in Wales in 1987 at Betws-y-Coed by train and taking the pilgrimage to St. Elen’s Holy Well in Dolwyddelan in 2017, thirty years in between and a mere six miles apart reveals that coincidences do not exist, but providence does.
One year ago today, we were winding our way back from Wales, over hill and dale, across the Irish Sea to stay overnight in Dublin, and then return to our home base and our cousins in Northern Ireland.
When I first went on my solo adventure to Wales in 2009, upon returning I was asked if I wanted to bring my family to see what I saw. My immediate answer was no. I didn’t want to share it with anyone, but the reality was that I also didn’t want them to spoil it for me.
Like when you set up a movie night for your best friend to watch your favorite movie, and while they’re watching the movie you’re watching them to see that they love it as much as you do…but…they don’t, and it kind of ruins the experience for you, and now every time you watch that movie again, you’ll think of your friend who didn’t like it, and wonder why they didn’t like it.
Wales could not impress them as it did me, and I did not want to see the looks on their faces of huh, so this is it.
I knew that if I wanted to visit Wales on this trip, and I did, not only to pilgrimage to my saint’s holy well, but also just to feel the land under my feet, the rocks under my fingertips, then I would have to bring them along. This was a family adventure and I couldn’t leave them behind for three days. I resigned myself to whatever they would feel, and I made peace with it.
From the ferry, we began the drive across Angelsey to cross the bridge into mainland Wales and the hour or so drive to our hotel, adjacent to St. Elen’s Well. Winding hilly roads bordered by stone walls, and there was finally a pull off to see the view, right before the bridge.
Leaning on the cold stone wall, looking out across the field that met the dry bed that met the water, seeing the Menai Bridge across the way, the mountain ahead and to the left of us, I turned to see where my family was, and there I saw it.
Even the kids.
They may not have had the spiritual connection or the hiraeth of homecoming, but they had amazement. It was about to drizzle, and it was grey, but judging by their faces and their eyes sweeping across the landscape, it was the brightest, sunniest day they’d ever seen.
And as we drove deeper into the towns at the base of Snowdon, their eyes only got wider. We got out several times between that first time and reaching our hotel. There were rivers to see, stone buildings, mountain views, sheep and cows, but oh the amount of sheep defying gravity on the side of the mountain.
I was glad I brought them.
They could maybe kind of understand my obsession connection.
I wasn’t even mad when they unintentionally one-upped me. It was at the point when I couldn’t do anymore climbing, so when we passed through Llanberis on our way back to Holyhead, they went up to see and take pictures for me of Dolbadarn Castle, one of Llywelyn Fawr’s. Actually, I believe that his grandson, Owain Goch ap Gruffydd was kept confined there by his brother Llywelyn the Last. So I was a little jealous, but I was still okay with it. Mostly. Now, they’ve been to a part of Wales that I haven’t.
Maybe one day I can rectify that.
Dolbadarn Castle. Llanberis. North Wales. (c)2018
On the path to Dolbadarn Castle. Llanberis. North Wales. (c)2018
[Note: As I began to write this, I thought it would be an emotional look back at an important pilgrimage that I undertook last summer. However, as I began to write, it seemed that before I got to the actual pilgrimage and the feelings that it conjured, I had to wade through the logistics of discovering the well, and finding that it was important for me to visit it. The coincidences that have crossed my life’s path and Wales astound me every time I discover them.]
I’ve been fortunate to have visited North Wales three times. The first was randomness, the second fortune, and the third with determination. All three were spiritual and while the first began a decades old journey, all three began, and explored different aspects of that journey. All three had friends and family supporting and helping to make it happen.
Read the brief captions about the three photos I’ve chosen to represent my three visits, all steeped in more meaning than can be written in such a brief blurb, but will be explored more fully, or if not fully, then thoroughly in future days.
This photo, while taken in 2017, represents my first visit in 1987. I hiked and hitchhiked from the train in Betws-y-Coed to this youth hostel, just about center of the Llanberis Pass, a stop for hikers and climbers alike. It was my first foray into Wales, and it grabbed me in a way that many other things haven’t come close. It linked me to a place i’ve never been as if I’ve been born there. It is my soul’s homeland, and I feel the hiraeth as clearly as any native-born Welsh-person. The youth hostel at Pen-y-Pass. (c)2017-2018
Dolwyddelan Castle from the road. Taken in 2009, and representing my 2009 visit, it was also the view my family saw in 2017 when we stayed barely a mile up the road, but in 2009, this was one of my important, planned destinations: the birthplace of Llywelyn Fawr, the Prince of Wales. The castle wasn’t here, but he was born in and around this plot of land in 1178, and eventually built a motte and bailey castle on the mound here. This keep replaced that in future years.Llywelyn, and a gift from a dear friend, brought me to this place to see the places that i’d been reading about; and feeling about. The castle resides on private land, a working farm. You pay the woman at the back door, and walk through the cow gate, climbing the steep dirt path until reaching the pavement, and more hills going up and up. I wasn’t in the physical condition to go all the way to the keep. I may have tried if not for the misty rain making the slate and stone steps slippery. It was not a risk I was willing to take alone. I was still content to have reached as far as I did, and to meet some folks. I walked around for a bit, listening to the nearby stream and small rapids crashing lightly against the rocks. I discovered a snarled tree that was the perfect place for a distant photo of the castle. Looking forward to my next visit. (c)2009-2018
I discovered St. Elen’s well on a blog and was thrilled that ot represented my confirmation saint. I discovered long after returning in 2009 that the town where I spent three days (Caernarfon) was her town, and Dolwyddelan, where I’d spent a couple of hours walking around was less than a mile up the road from the hotel named for her that I must have passed on the way to the castle car park. We stayed at that hotel on this more recent trip, and the well is on the hotel property. There was some dispute on the land the path is on, but there seems to be some sort of arrangement as I had no issues other than the daily rain made the steep path a little bit slippery, but not undoable. Slow going made me take the time to stop and, not smell the flowers, but observe the vegetation, the tree branches, the cows and church next door, listen to the birds all around me, and come upon the well slowly. I could hear the water flowing before I could see the well, and it could do with a weeding, but it was still glorious, and spellbinding, and I felt the spirituality of not only Wales, but of Elen while the smells of the variety of plants were captivating, and the holy water was cold to my touch, but tasted refreshing and revitalizing. I sat for some time in contemplation. My family was very cooperative of that. (c)2017-2018