When I first floated this island spiritualty odyssey with various friends one or two said ‘you must go to Bardsey.’ So much so that by the time we got to the planning stage Bardsey had taken on a kind of mythical aura of a place we needed to visit on our travels. However into every good plan a speck of grit, a splot of rain or something worse occasionally falls and basically having looked at the available accommodation on Bardsey Alan and I realised that sadly staying on the island wouldn’t work for us.
However, not to be deterred, we decided that if we stayed near enough to Bardsey we could take a day trip and then travel on north to explore Anglesey and Holyhead.
For our first base we stayed in the Old Rectory at Boduan. Just to say if ever you are looking for B&B in North Wales the Old Rectory is an excellent place to stay with a great welcome and a good hearty breakfast. On our first day we took the lie of the land. Travelling down to Abersoch we caught sight of St Tudwell’s island which made a nice connection with all that we had learned of St Tugual on our earlier journeys. Having had a little drive around we thought we had worked out our route the following day for the boat to Bardsey. However never underestimate the power of our lady of the satnav to complicate a journey, especially on rural roads. Finally by switching the wretched thing off and laughing about me giving directions to Alan in ‘lady satnav tones’, very posh voice ‘turn right at the next junction’, don’t go up that cul de sac’ we got to the boat in very good time and took a while to enjoy the views, marvelling at the interesting rock formations by the shore.
From the moment we set out on our 20 minute voyage we knew this would be something special. We have never before seen a boat towed by a tractor up the beach for a passenger launch before, but it all works perfectly. Our guide Colin Evans, lives on the island and gave us fascinating insights into the life and wildlife.
Colin’s mother Christine Evans is a well-known writer and poet who lives half the year on Bardsey Island, spending winters in Abedaron. In 1967 she moved to Pwllheli, where her father and grandmother were brought up, to work as a teacher, and married into a Bardsey Island farming family. Whilst on maternity leave in 1976, she started writing poems, and her first book was published seven years later. Cometary Phrases was Welsh Book of the Year 1989 and she was the winner of the inaugural Roland Mathias Prize in 2005.
Bardsey Island [ Ynys Enlli in the Welsh] lies 1.9 miles off the Llŷn Peninsula in the county of Gwynedd. On our arrival we were welcomed by seals basking on the rocks, the previous day apparently there had been 200 of them. Although the island is small with a population of less than 20 there is hospitality for visitors, places to shelter if it rains, a farm café and a visitor’s centre. There are differing accounts regarding the origins of Bardsey’s name. One is that it derives from the Norse. The Vikings named so many of the Welsh islands – Grassholm, Skokholm, Anglesey, Skomer, Steep Holm –this one was named after Barda a Viking chief. Another account claims that the English name comes from the title the Isle of the Bard’s. The Welsh name for the island means the Island in the Currents, it is also known as the island of 20,000 saints.
The late, great poet R.S. Thomas knew the island well and could almost see it from his last parish posting, at St. Hywyn’s, in Aberdaron.
As the rain and mist came in instead of exploring Enlil’s mountain we were drawn to the visitor’s centre. We learned about island poet Brenda Chamberlain whose life, art, poetry and prose is deeply embedded in the island.
Bardsey was inhabited in Neolithic times, it was known to the Phoenicians because it was situated on a well establish trade route. Ptolemy knew it as Edri – and included it on the first ever map, or at least the first extant map of the Irish Sea, while Pliny called it Andros. During the 5th Century the island became a refuge for persecuted Christians. Around 516 Saint Einion king of Llyn invited the Breton saint Cadfan to move to the island and under his guidance St Mary’s Abbey was built. For centuries the island was important as the holy place of burial for the bravest and best in the land. Bards called it the land of indulgences, absolution and pardon, legend said that if you died or were buried on Bardsey you went straight to heaven. In Medieval times it was a popular place for pilgrimages and it continues to be so today. Only the ruins of the Abbey’s bell tower remain but a Celtic cross amidst the ruins commemorates the 20,000 saints reputedly buried on the island.
The Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act of 1536, on the orders of Henry VIII, resulted in St Mary’s Abbey being dissolved and its buildings demolished in 1537.
For many years Bardsey Island formed part of the Newborough Estate, and between 1870 and 1875 the island’s farms were rebuilt; a small limestone quarry was opened, and a lime kiln constructed. In 1875 given the choice of a harbour or a new church, the islanders asked the estate to provide a place of worship and a small Methodist Chapel was built.
We visited the little chapel and were interested to read how the Bardsey Island Trust are encouraging a Chaplaincy on the island with thoughts about establishing a round the island pilgrimage and retreats. During the summer there is usually a Chaplain for people to talk to, there are regular services during the week and on Sundays and the church is open. There is certainly a sense of spirituality and sacredness about this island and many artists, writers and musicians have been attracted to its shores. Some believe it to be Afallon or Avalon, the burial site of King Arthur and, indeed, there’s a jagged set of rocks set in the middle of Bardsey Sound called, tongue-twistingly, Gorffrydiau Caswennan whose spiked dangers reputedly wrecked the Gwennan, King Arthur’s ship.
Reading through the island’s history one of the key moments was the coming of the lighthouse to the island. in 1819 following three shipwrecks many calls were made for a light to be established on the island and following lengthy discussions on 24th December 1821 a light was shown on the island. The effect of the lighthouse on the island community would have been significant. With the lighthouse came an island boat, named the supply. Three lighthouse keepers and their families arrived on the island from Devon and Harwich. The lighthouse men were described, by one writer, as being the main spring of the island. If supplies were low because it had been too rough to get on and off the island tins of corned beef could be had from the keepers.
However these keepers, of course, spoke English and this brought an interesting new dimension to the Welsh speaking community. The Revd W.T, Jones in a letter to Lord Newborough mentions the increased workload of conducting services and school lessons in English as well as Welsh. The island families were important in keeping numbers at the school up. The numbers never did exceed 16 pupils 9 of these at one stage being children of the Revd W.T. Jones. I was amused at the comment on one of the displays by Isaac Rowlands, a visitor from Rhiw in 1912, who commented rather disapprovingly about the behaviour of the Reverend’s children ‘they behave at school just as they do at home!’ Some things in life never change!
Another interesting item of history concerns the King of the Island, it is not known quite how the title began but the role certainly attracted some colourful characters.
The last King of the Island was Love Pritchard. He was self-appointed ‘I am the oldest; I am going to be king now’ he declared. One of Love Pritchard’s main claims to fame was that at the out break of World War I he offered himself and the men of Bardsey for military service. Having been refused because at 71 he was considered too old, Pritchard took umbridge and declared the island a neutral power.He died in 1926 at the age of 82 having left the island the year before. Was he sad to leave the island? Apparently not. He was reported to have said that now he could find a wife and go to the kinema’. [see picture].
After a very interesting day it was time to get back to the mainland. On the voyage back we saw Kittiwakes, Shags, Cormorants and yet more seals.
We were so pleased to have made it to Bardsey, even if only for a day, this part of the world on the Llyn peninsula is a very special place as reflected in this poem by Christine Evans.
Skies tower here, and we are small.
Winters, we sleep on a flap of land
in a dark throat. We taste the salt
of its swallow. Huge cold breaths
hurtle over, cascade down
till we feel the house haunch.
When morning comes at last
houses sit up with pricked ears
on reefs of land the black tide
leaves, or sidle crab-wise
to the lane, their small squashed faces
giving nothing of their thoughts away.
In summer, flowers loosening with seed
reach out to fingerstroke
cars passing in the long sweet dusk.
Hay-meadows sigh. Pearl-pale
in the bracken on the headland
shorn ewes step delicate
and wary as young unicorns.
The sea we look out over is a navel
the wrinkled belly-button
of an older world: after dark
like busy star-systems, the lights
of Harlech, Aberystwyth, Abergwaun
wink and beckon. The sun’s gone down
red as a wound behind Wicklow.
A creaking of a sail away
Cernyw and Llydaw wait.
Once, here was where what mattered
happened. A small place
at the foot of cliffs of falling light;
horizons that look empty.
If we let ourselves believe it,
– Llyn, from Selected Poems, Christine Evans. Published by Seren in November 2003.