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various essays on, well, art and culture
lessons learned from this profession
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Halfway to Rome
The weather promised to be nice, so we decided to head west to St. David's and points thereabouts. We got breakfast, got stuff loaded into the car, and headed out on the A40, stopping in Carmarthen. At the Morrison's there I picked up a bunch of inexpensive bottles of their house brand of flavored spring water - some really awful Lemon-Lime flavor sweetened with nasty nasty aspartame. Ugh. Little wonder the stuff was on sale so cheap (like $.25 each for a 33cl bottle - about 12 ounces). So why did I get it? Because I needed something for my growing collection of water from holy wells. Emptied and rinsed, I could fill them up, making a small note on each of the source of the water, and then bring them home. I figured that no one at customs would bat an eye at me bringing home some of "my favorite spring water, which is unavailable at home." Even if the Homeland Security types were nervous, I could easily open and drink from any of the bottles and risk only the chance of some water-borne bug. Hey, I could stand to lose about 30 pounds like the last time I had giardia . . .
Anyway, after getting those and gassing up the little car, we got back on the A40 west to Whitland. Here they have a new Hywel Dda Centre, which wasn't open for the season yet (of course). But the cool garden is open; it is in six small sections, each reflecting - what, you want to know who Hywel Dda is? Uncultured lout. I can't believe you don't know about one of the most beloved figures from Welsh history. Next, you'll be telling me that you know nothing of the laws he promulgated, which were some of the most enlightened laws that existed in the world for over six centuries. Yeesh. OK, ok. Here's a Wiki entry that'll fill you in. Anyway, the garden and grounds were put together by an artist from Aberystwyth, who did really nice work integrating the six themes of the laws of Hywel Dda into six sections of the garden, and in the layout of stonework in front of and around the Centre, even extending out into the nearby streets. It was really interesting, even if the Centre itself wasn't open. Here's their website.
But like I said, the Centre itself was closed. So, we moved on. The A40 to Haverfordwest, the A487 then along the coast of St. Bride's Bay to the furthest end of Pembrokeshire and the cathedral city of St. David's. The drive was uneventful, though more than a little picturesque, and the weather was downright beautiful. We did make an opportune stop at a woolen mill outside Whitchurch just before we got to St. David's, where we picked up some goods for ourselves and as gifts. But it was a brief visit, and soon we were back on the road to St. David's.
We got there, then went through town and south less than a mile, deciding to visit the legendary site of Dewi Sant's birth - known as the Chapel/Well/Retreat of St. Non. It is one of the most famous such sites in Wales, and dates back at least to the 6th century. It remains a locus of spirituality, and there is currently a retreat and modern chapel there adjacent to the site.
Out away from town, there on the coastal plain, this place still echoes what it must have been like in those early days, with a sense of remote beauty and ruggedness. The sea is just spittin' distance from the chapel (which is now in a horse pasture). We parked near the retreat, took the stone path down to the well. The Catholic Church refurbished the well outlet in 1951, adding a small grotto to the Virgin, which is now a popular place of prayer for those of that faith. The well itself is now similarly covered in native stone, the well pool spilling out and thence down to the sea in a small rivulet. Historically, there was a donation box, though these days people just toss coins directly into the pool. I squatted down, touched my hand to the surface of the water. It was cold and very clear, and I felt a slight electric shiver race up my spine. Using one of the Morrison's bottles, I took a sample.
The chapel itself is a little further on, out in the middle of the previously noted horse pasture, but is protected by a fence with a kissing gate. It is nothing but a ruin with partial walls, the general outline of the building still discernible. Outside the walls small yellow flowers proliferated, but inside it was almost exclusively the white version of the same flower. Very odd. In one corner of the ruin is a stone inscribed with a 6th century circular Latin cross, which was likely original to the first chapel or a tomb associated with the site. In shape this stone is not unlike the dolmens standing throughout Wales.
After lingering at the site for a while, just enjoying the crisp sea air, we walked back up towards the parking lot. Just past the lot, tucked into an ancient hedgerow, was a slate bench given the site some years back, which overlooks the entire scene. There, sheltered from the wind, the slate sun-warmed, it was peaceful and comfortable. A good place for contemplation. We spent a quiet moment sitting there, just taking it all in, holding hands.
Then it was back up the road to St. David's. We parked at the bottom of the city (it is the smallest full city in the UK), and walked up the substantial hill to the tiny city center. We had a filling lunch at a pub Alix knew from her tour with the choir previously. And then into St. David's Cathedral grounds.
We made a brief stop in the Gatehouse Tower to check out an exhibition about the site, then plunged into the church close. Fascinating place. Here's their official website with about all the info you could want. And here is a page of images you might want to look through after reading my description. The Gatehouse, where you enter (duh!), is the highest point inside the grounds. Come in, and you immediately have to descend a long series of slate stairs to where the cathedral itself is.
If you've ever seen any of the great cathedrals of Europe, you know how imposing they are not just in size, but in the physical weight of the history they have seen. St. David's is exactly that. Enter the building, and you are awed by its grandeur and humbled by all that has happened there. Not only is this the resting place for St. David (the patron saint of Wales), but also for Gerald of Wales, and for countless nobles, knights, and princes of the church. This place was considered by the Holy See to be so important that during the middle ages two pilgrimages to St. David's were accorded the same as a pilgrimage to Rome, and three such were on a par with a visit to Jerusalem. The very air you breathe is laden with history - you can't escape its influence.
We got to the bottom of the hill, stood dwarfed before the cathedral. Behind us, up another side of the hill we had just descended, was a great cemetery full of trees - which themselves were full of crows. And the crows were making a hell of a racket. Seemed a weird omen prior to entering the cathedral. But we didn't let it stop us.
Inside, into the great space. Unlit, but not dark, light pouring in through the arched windows. A wooden ceiling - a curiosity for such a building, but due to an earthquake in the 13th century. We pop into the little cathedral shop area, pick up some postcards, before going on. Up the Nave on the north side, to the North Transept. Look in on the Choir in all it's 16th century splendor. See the remnants of the 10th century shrine to St. David, the glitz of the High Altar with it's painted ceiling and encaustic tiles. Stop for a moment in the Trinity Chapel.
One note - in the Chapel of the Holy Trinity is a reliquary, a chest of sturdy construction and modest design, behind wrought-iron bars about chest high. You could reach through the bars to touch it. I did not. But putting a hand up to it I could almost feel the vibration of all the veneration it has received over the years, for it is purported to hold the bones of St. David himself.
Then up to look in on the Lady Chapel, and around to the South Transept before coming back out into the Nave. Typical of such buildings, there are crypts and crofts everywhere, and you basically walk from the top of one grave to another. It pays to be either religious or at least not squeamish.
We left the Cathedral and crossed the small river Alun via footbridge to the Bishop's Palace, a splendid ruin under the care of CADW. Seeing what Bishop Gower built here, you can well imagine the power of the church at its height. It was as well constructed and appointed as any Royal castle, sans fortifications per se. Take a look for yourself and a page of images. Gods, I do love these large tourist attractions which are extensively documented on the web . . .
CADW, in keeping with their mandate, is doing extensive work to stabilize and preserve the ruins for future generations, and has informational plaques and displays throughout. One interesting thing they are starting to do is to have artisans place new recreated stonework in situ - just one or a couple of pieces at a time - so you can easily see what that particular window or doorway or stair or seat would have looked like in its heyday. None of the history of the ruin is lost, but a new appreciation of the original appearance is gained.
The Bishop's Palace is huge, just bloody huge. There are multiple halls, chapels, the solar, the living quarters, and all the support infrastructure of kitchens, storage, stables, et cetera. If you haven't looked at the link I provided, do so and see what I mean. We spent a good long time there, admiring the all the work which is being done as well as the honesty of the original structures.
We left St. David's as the sun was getting low, having decided to see if we could check out a couple more points of interest on the way back to the cottage. We took the A487 again, but this time heading northeast to Fishguard. En route we came across another woolen mill, but this one was uneventful other than the trip into the darkened room (the light bulb was burnt out) to see the rusting, non-functional water wheel. Woo-hoo!
However, we did stop at Pentre Ifan, a 3,500 BC burial site now noteworthy for where it is situated (on a beautiful mountainside, vistas of the Preseli Mountains and many other burial cairns of more recent vintage all around). We parked by the side of the local road, in a small lot. Through the kissing gate, then along a tumble-down wall separating fields, partially overgrown with hedge and briar. Through another kissing gate, and you are standing there before the site. It had once all been covered by earth, probably not as a tomb for one person but for many. Now the earth is gone, and the structure remains, bare to the sky. One great slab of stone several meters long and a couple wide, supported by three dolmen, high enough that I had to stretch to touch the underside of the capstone. Wow. Little wonder that it was the first monument in Britain to become listed as a protected site. Here's a good page on it, which even has one of the Quicktime panning movie things.
On the way back to the car I stopped, selected a stone from the wall adjacent the path. It has the curious mottling of blue and white I remembered from Stonehenge. It is a gift for a friend who appreciates such things.
From there we cut across on the B4332 to the A484, further east until the highway turned south and dropped down out of the mountains, south to Carmarthen. It was getting on to full dark, and we'd seen all we'd wished to for the day. We stopped at the Morrison's again long enough to pick up some fresh groceries for dinner, and headed back to the cottage.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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