A walk to see Melangell

August 21, 2020 2 Comments

It’s an airless morning in the dog days of August, and the temperature is already around 23 degrees.  I’m setting out from Lake Vyrnwy on a pilgrimage – a walk over the hills to the church and shrine of St Melangell in Cwm Pennant.

Of all the Welsh saints Melangell comes at the top of my list. Her story, told in the late fourteenth century manuscript Historia Divae Monacellae, is one of flight, asylum and new hope.  Melangell, the daughter of an Irish king, escaped to Wales as a young woman to escape a forced marriage.  She settled as a hermit in as remote a place as she could find, in the shadow of the Berwyn mountains.  For fifteen years she saw no man. Then, one day – in AD 604, the manuscript says, with precision – the ruler of Powys, Brochwel Ysgithrog, came by with his hounds, hunting a hare.  In a thorny bramble bush they came across Melangell in prayer.  As the dogs snapped at its heels, the hare took shelter in the folds of Melangell’s dress.. The dogs retreated, howling in fear.  Brochwel, impressed by the miracle and by Melangell’s devotion, immediately granted her a parcel of land in the area as a sacrosanct place of asylum.  She continued to live there, in the company of like-minded women, and in daily friendship with the all the hares of the neighbourhood, for thirty-seven years.

(The usual interpretation of Melangell’s name, by the way, is ‘honey-angel’.)

Lake Vyrnwy belongs to a different world. Its story is one of destruction and disappearance. In the 1880s a whole community, the village of Llanwddyn and the land around it, was obliterated to provide water for Liverpool Corporation.  Over thirty homes and farms, two chapels and three inns were abandoned to the waters, and the villagers, who were not consulted about their fate, were rehoused south of the new dam.

It’s a relief to leave the unmoving lake and the grim atlantean stonework of the reservoir dam and join the pilgrim path up through Ffridd Cynon Isaf (Cynon’s lower mountain pasture).  This is a quiet, near treeless valley, uninhabited since Bronze Age people built their round cairns here three thousand years ago.  There’s also a standing stone with the mysterious name Carreg y Tair Eglwys.  I only have sheep for company.  In fact, I won’t meet another human until shortly before Pennant Melangell, in over four hours’ time.  Gorse, heather and willow herb are in bloom, and rowan berries flash out in tight, bright clusters.

The path levels off and enters Hirnant Forest, turning into a broad track.  Over the brow of the hill it starts to fall, and views open up into the valley below, and the Berwyn mountains, including the sharp peak of their highest point, Cadair Berwyn, in the distance.  Near the bottom, beyond Brwynen farm, I turn a corner. An adult hare bounds out in front of me.  Both of us are startled. Almost as soon as it sees me, it skitters away and vanishes.  I stand there in disbelief.  Melangell’s protections are still strong here.

After Bwlch Sych farm the wooded path climbs alongside Afon Barog, a lively stream in a gully on the right.  On the left, sheep set up a loud chorus.  This is a steep slope, and it becomes steeper still through pasture.  Exertion and the increasing heat bring more sweat, and more regular stops.  Now the field gives way to rough, reedy ground, up past crags and then up again, across boggy upland appropriately called Siglem Las (green marsh) on the OS map.  (This is not a walk for those without good boots, at any time of year.)  At the top, a line of new forestry meets me.  In front of its fence is an ancient track, Y Ffordd Gefn, and I follow it left, weaving past the boggy spots, till the pilgrim path crosses a fence and enters the forest.  Here I stop for a break and a bite to eat after over two and a half hours of walking, and look back on the bleak moor, at this point labelled, oddly, Waen Llestri (crockery moor).  In the Bronze Age this must have been a kinder environment: more cairns have been found here.

Rood screen, Pennant Melangell: the hare

Through the wood, and on to a forestry track that leads to the lip of a steep hill, and a big view north-east into Cwm Llech far below.  In front of me is Llechwedd y Garth plantation, a devastated landscape of felled timber.  Shattered trunks lie at odd angles, and shorn branches in twisted piles.  Everywhere the land has been mangled by heavy machinery into ruts and ruptures.  Somewhere in the descent I go wrong and end up too far east, walking back into woodland.  I tack back, with difficulty, along a disused track clogged with felled debris and water, only to find myself trapped in an even worse spot, a game-breeding reservation – a concentration camp full of scuttering grouse and their black feeding hoppers.  The birds await the attention of the young London bankers and lawyers who will be here soon, oblivious of the claims of Melangell, to practice their killing skills. The area’s surrounded by a high wire fence, and there’s no easy way out.  I look around to make sure no one’s around before clambering awkwardly over the fence next to a gate, to rejoin the pilgrim trail.

Next there’s more woodland, below the heights of Craig yr Arian, before the path emerges near a ruined bwthyn at Pwlliago and turns into a track and then a lane.  Before long I’m down in Cwm Pennant, with a mile of gentle strolling along the narrow lane that leads to Pennant Melangell.  The village lies almost at the head of the valley, surrounded by steep hills, some wooded, others bare.  For a village it’s very small, just the ancient church, two houses and a farm.  By good fortune C. arrived on foot from Llangynog just five minutes earlier.

The two of us call at the St Melangell Centre and talk to Chris, the church’s kindly priest-guardian.  She generously offers us water – by now we’re both in desperate need – and gives us a pamphlet and permission to enter the church (generally closed under Covid).  We agree about the fine qualities of Melangell, and how relevant her story is today.  Giving refuge to those in need has never seemed so important (except to coldhearts like the UK government).  In the late seventeenth century Thomas Price of Llanfyllin, who copied out the Historia, wrote,

And till of late years no man would offer to kill a hare in that parish, which they tearmed wuyn Melangel (St Monacella her lambes), and it is observed to this day there that when a hare is persued by dogges, if any cry God & S. Monacella bee with thee, shee is sure to escape.

Lines written in the church in 1729 make a play on Melangell’s name to proclaim the continuing power of her influence:

Mil engyl a Melangell 
Trechant lu fyddin y fall.
Melangell and a thousand angels
Crush the massed armies of Hell

The stone church was built originally in the twelfth century, though it certainly had a predecessor. Its inside is full of hares – in the wooden carving of the fifteenth century rood screen, and the modern stone sculptures dotted round the nave and chancel.  Also in the chancel there’s a fourteenth century effigy of a praying female figure, wearing head-dress and long skirt. She’s often taken to be a cult image of Melangell, with two hares pictured at her waist. Covid-19 precautions mean we can’t get close to it – or to Melangell’s shrine. Even from the doorway, though, the shrine looks extraordinary, with its squat columns, relic chamber and steeply gabled roof.  Originally built in the twelfth century and last reconstructed in the late 1980s, it’s often said to be the earliest Romanesque shrine of its kind in northern Europe.  The fifteenth century poet Guto’r Glyn seems to refer to it in the elegy (42) for his patron and friend Einion ap Gruffudd of Llechwedd Ystrad:

A Phennant i gorff Einiawn
Oedd Wyddfa lwys ddeddfol iawn,
Melangell â’i i’r gafell gynt
Â’i dylwyth modd y delynt.
To Pennant came Einion’s body
A beautiful, most rightful grave
To Melangell’s shrine he brought his family
In times gone by.

In another poem (92) Guto implies that pilgrims make the journey to Melangell to be cured of their ailments.

Outside in the churchyard are four ancient yews, their trunks misshaped and hollowed by old age.  They’re reckoned to be at least 2,000 years old.  In shape the enclosure is roughly circular, thought be a sign of prehistoric origin, and it contained Bronze Age cremation burials.  So Pennant Melangell was a special place well before Melangell arrived from Ireland – perhaps, even then, a place of refuge and safety from a violent world.

We leave the church and walk down the valley to Llangynog.  No doubt this was the way most pilgrims approached Melangell’s shrine, rather than by the more strenuous path I took from Llanwddyn, unless the pilgrim had penitential motives.  It’s still hot, and we’re not in search of forgiveness but a long cold drink outside the New Inn. 

Hare (Carys Evans) (Mixed media, 15 x 20cm, August 2020)

Sgwarnog

In the midday heat,
Where the track bends –
Sgwarnog!
The instant before you spring away
Our animal eyes meet.
Will you wait? say mine.
Yours turn to flee,
Knowing fear,
Knowing I’m
No angel.

Pilgrim

For more details about Pennant Melangell, have a look at Montgomeryshire Collections, vol. 82, 1994. It includes an edition, with translation, of Historia Divae Monacellae, articles on the church and its excavations, shrine, history, fittings and paintings, and information about local boundaries and place-names.

Poems in English about St Melangell, including ‘Melangell variations’ by Gwyneth Lewis, are collected in The hare that hides within: poets about St Melangell, edited by Anne Cluysenaar and Norman Schwenk, Parthian, 2004. The pamphlet’s cover has a striking wood engraving of a running hare by Colin See-Paynton.

Comments (2)

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  1. Amanda says:

    Thank you for this. I felt like I’d had a holiday after I finished reading. Melangell is top of my Welsh Saint list too!

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