When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower ...
Then people long to go on pilgrimage
So wrote Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. Spring was a good time to go on pilgrimage - the weather was not too hot and not too cold, and if you were lucky and the company was good the journey might even become something of a holiday. But the main aim of the pilgrim was to ask pardon for sins or gain grace to ensure a place in heaven.
To go on pilgrimage meant to journey to a distant place imbued with sanctity conferred on it by the life or martyrdom of a holy person who had become an object of veneration, often because of miracles worked in response to prayers of the faithful.
A Hard Journey
A journey of any kind was not to be undertaken lightly. Travelling across country was no easy matter. Most people walked, so the long journeys were for those who could afford some kind of mount. Even those who rode a horse or donkey would often have to walk to rest the animal, and the last part of the journey was always taken on foot. Bad weather and shortage of food were constant hazards, so the hospitality of kindly monks and priests was relied upon.
Jerusalem was the pinnacle of achievement in pilgrimage terms, but not many people could afford the time or the money to go that far, nor were they willing to risk the dangers and difficulties of such a long journey in far off lands. British Christians prepared for a sea voyage could go to Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain, or take ship for St. David's. If riding or walking was preferred then there was the shrine of the martyred St. Alban, or Our Lady of Walsingham, or by the twelfth century the shrine of the murdered St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury which Chaucer's pilgrims chose as their destination. In Wales there was quite a choice of saints and holy sites - among them St. Winifred's Well in north Wales, Our Lady of Penrhys, St. Anthony's Well and of course St. David's.
The benefits pilgrims hoped to gain from their efforts were many and various. They could be forgiveness for sins, an 'indulgence' which brought relief from time spent in purgatory, the healing of an illness, granting of a favour, or just a feeling of virtuousness.
Two pilgrimages to St. David's were worth one to Rome, and three equalled Jerusalem itself, although their relative values must surely have depended on the starting point. Pilgrims usually travelled in company with others - the roads were rudimentary and hazardous, a fall from a horse or donkey could be disastrous if you were alone. Routes usually kept to the high ground, partly because they were taking old Roman or drovers' roads which were easy to follow, and partly because valleys tended to be wooded. The woods and hedges might harbour no more than birds, but they could be hiding places for robbers. There were no signposts so you needed a guide who knew the route and who, particularly in Wales with all our rivers, knew where the best crossing places were.
The Way of the Pilgrim
In Carmarthenshire we can trace some of the pilgrim routes and guess at others. Journeying from the east after leaving Margam Abbey where the monks had provided food and shelter, the way led to Llansawel and across the Nedd at low water to Neath Abbey and thence to Swansea and the crossing of the Tawe. Following the old Roman route the pilgrims arriving at Loughor passed the ruins of the Roman fortlet where they could cross almost dry shod at low tide. From here, according to folk tradition, the way led through Bynea where, again according to tradition, a 'hospice' offered pilgrims shelter - perhaps commemorated in the present-day name of Yspitty. Wayfarers passing through Llwynhendy, could rest at Capel Berwick, now no more than ancient ruins just across the road from the present church. Locally referred to as Capel Dewi, perhaps this is a folk memory of the pilgrims' route.
At what is now Capel, stood a church or chapel of ease dedicated to St. Gwynllyw, the father of St. Cadog. Recent excavations have uncovered evidence of an extensive Christian burial ground. Bones from the graves have been carbon-dated from 1010 to 1430 AD. Pilgrims might have rested here before continuing their journey past Bryntirion and down to Llanelli and its church dedicated to St. Elli, a pupil of St. Cadog. Perhaps some of the pilgrims waded across the marshes to visit a hermit on Machynys - small off-shore islands were frequently chosen by holy men as places where they could escape from the world and concentrate on the worship of God.
The route from Llanelli now led across the Lliedi and back to the high ground, possibly past Cilymaenllwyd where there is today an ancient stone bearing a Celtic cross marking a holy site. From here through Trimsaran fording a tributary of the Gwendraeth and then the Gwendraeth itself at Spudders Bridge where a medieval bridge bears witness to the old route. Its name suggests that there once a 'hospital' here where pilgrims could spend the night before the final leg into Kidwelly, via the monks' ford commemorated in the modern Monksford Road, and so down to the church of St. Mary's where the Virgin had long been venerated for the miracles she performed for the faithful.
From Kidwelly the old road, the Portway, led up over the hills and down to Ferryside where, as its name suggests, there was a ferry, possibly operated by the Knights of St. John, to carry goods and pilgrims over the Tywi to Llansteffan.
At Llansteffan, pilgrims might take a detour to St. Anthony's Well, a healing spring dedicated to St. Anthony of the Desert. He was a saint of the early church renowned for his asceticism and his titanic struggles with Satan in the Egyptian desert, as well as for an exceptionally long life - born about 250 AD and died in 356AD. The early church in Wales was much influenced by the Christianity of the eastern Mediterranean, possibly because of ancient trading links.
From Llansteffan the route to St. David's could lead through Eglwys Cymyn via Tavernspite to Whitland Abbey and then further westwards. Pilgrims heading for St. Clears once again took to the high ground. They walked or rode to St. Teilo's church beside the Cywyn, now in ruins. The farmhouse adjoining the church is known as "Pilgrim's Rest". Then it was fording the Cywyn to Llanfihangel where "its most famous feature is the six twelfth-century gravestones, traditionally said to be those of pilgrims who died on their way to St. David's. The graves have flat carved slabs showing male and female figures in stylized clothes and carrying weapons or, possibly, pilgrim staves. Some of the head and foot stones are carved with figure of knights on horseback. A small stone may mark the grave of a child."*
Pilgrimage is less popular nowadays when travel is easier and faith is less, but walking along parts of the ancient routes and visiting the ancient holy places where generations have left their hopes and prayers can be an enriching experience.
* Dr. M. Gray
With thanks to Dyfed Archaeological Trust and University of Wales, Newport
Further information: www.cistercian-way-newport.ac.uk