Sometimes you call upon your ancestral spirits and spirits of place, and sometimes you go and visit. For the Urban Druid, local history and legend is often forgotten or overlaid by generations of outward migrants, so we research a little harder and travel a little further to find our continuity with our environment, our community and our tradition.
What am I talking about? It’s a hot day in July and Soror Brigantia and I are out of town, on the Gower Peninsula in search of a saint. Saint Cennydd, a sixth century hermit around whom cult and legend formed over centuries, eventually published in the fifteenth century.
He’s not hard to find: the village of Llangennith is named after him. I did a lot of my growing up in Llangennith. I know the layout quite well, the people less so. Shrewd locals running family farms mixing with affluent outsiders with posh houses in this Welsh Green Belt. The seasonal tourist invasion and the best surfing in Wales just down the lane.
Saint Cennydd should have been forgotten by now. But he isn’t. This is his festival time, the Gŵyl Mabsant Sain Cennydd. For centuries (apart from a Victorian hiatus) the local parish has been celebrating with an annual party between his feast day on 5th July and the nearest Sunday. We’ve arrived between festivities, and there’s a restful silence in the circular Celtic churchyard (the llan) not shared by the noisy pub beer garden opposite.
The parishioners remember the legend of Saint Cennydd being left in the reeds like Osiris or Moses, rescued from a basket floating on the waters, like Taliesin. They remember him being rescued by seagulls and raised by angels on Worms Head, the nearby promontory with its Mesolithic cave sanctuary. Or was it on Burry Holms, the tiny island nearby, with its cairn and its little ruined oratory?
Anyway, the fierce herring gulls still rule the Worm’s Head although, typical country creatures, they keep their distance from people unless their nests or their patron saint are threatened. For their sake, the parishioners fly a huge wooden herring gull with calico streamers from a pole up the church tower during the Gŵyl Mabsant. Bird on a stick. One of humanity’s oldest totems. I pick up a feather from the base of the tower next to the wooden totem which lies waiting to be hoisted this weekend.
The parishioners remember Saint Cennydd as the holy hermit who came to be alone with the Alone, for the angels which enlightened him have still, small voices, unlike the seagulls.
The parishioners remember Saint Cennydd, born with a withered leg; afflicted like Saint Lazarus, miraculously saved and in turn bringing healing to many; the crippled one who nonetheless crossed and recrossed the Gower to minister to the faithful. And wherever he stopped in thirst a spring welled up to serve. Gower’s limestone landscape is leaky with springs. Predictably, there’s one right outside the church. We fill whatever bottles we can find with this holy spring water.
The parishioners remember Saint Cennydd pouring out the wisdom he got from angels. It’s said that Saint Cennydd was on good terms with that golden-tongued South Wales bishop, Saint David. Also that he taught the other Gower saints Madoc, Rhidian and Tudwg from the monastic college or bangor at the church.
A lot of other things are said about him too, but as many of them were said by arch-liars like Iolo Morganwg, we don’t take them too literally. Rather, we allow them to set the tone, the ethos, the spirit, as it were, of our little pilgrimage.
The church is open. As they go, this one is simple and gracious, a compact Norman building with a square bell tower. We explore freely, taking time to commune with the spirit of the Saint in front of the altar with the stained glass window of Christ flanked by Cennydd and David. Cennydd himself was allegedly buried here, and his holy skull used in the swearing of oaths until his relics were moved to North Wales, for that was how rival ecclesiastics stole each others’ magic in the Middle Ages.The magical skull: another traditional totem.
There’s a lot of community stuff on display at the rear, linking the legendary past with the village’s present. We make offerings of current coins for the welfare of the church, and each take a cockleshell, emblem of the pilgrim.
Outside, the graves await. Barely readable old stones, many fallen, mixed with more recent ones with the same surnames on them. Names of farms, too. I’ve been on some of them.
And the cenotaph. At the edge of the llan, a small war memorial comprising a Celtic cross and the inevitable list of dead heroes. Here we pay our respects and leave the dead of this parish our offerings of much older coins.
But we can’t leave. We keep going back for one more thing, over and over, until we run out of excuses and the Saint gives us license to depart. And so we know we will be back again. In the meantime, the spirit of Cennydd the hermit, the angel-taught teacher, the crippled healer, the well-spring of the community, the friend of seabirds, comes back with us in the mementoes of the day: spring water, gull feather, local stone, church pamphlets and cockle shells.
The magic never left. And neither did we.