Once or twice on our travels people have already been asking the question ‘Do you have a favourite island?’ It is an invidious question really because choosing a ‘favourite’ island from those we have visited feels a bit like trying to choosing a favourite child from a large family of very diverse but equally beautiful characters. ‘Which are the most spiritual places?’ Others will ask. Now, that is a very subjective question. One person’s meat is another’s poison and when it comes to islands one person’s little slice of heaven can be the absolute pits of the planet to somebody else. It can depend on all kinds of extraneous factors ranging from the state of the weather to how you happen to be feeling at the time. If you had a rough ferry crossing you probably won’t be feeling very spiritually attuned on arrival no matter how beautiful the island is. However all of the above having been said I do believe that in some places there is a heightened feeling of the mystical, spiritual dimension and a real sense of God’s presence. Some people will label these places ‘thin places’ others will call them ‘places of divine encounter’ but as we continue our travels part of our study involves attempting to discern where they may be found and what makes them the way that they are. Which believe me is just as much of a challenge as it sounds!
Ynys Llanddwyn which means the church of St Dwynwen’s was definitely one of those places. In the case of this particular island I think both Alan and I agreed the sense of it being a thin place had something to do with its setting and the sense of being really exposed to the natural elements. Difficult perhaps to convey in mere words but hopefully the photos will capture something of what I mean. But first let me tell you a little about Dwynwen. She is the Welsh patron saint of lovers making her the equivalent of St Valentine. Her feast day, 25th January, is often celebrated in Wales with flowers and cards. A big boost for St Dwynwen’s Day came in 2003 when the Welsh language board (Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg) teamed up with the supermarket Tesco to distribute 50,000 free cards in 43 of its Welsh stores. One card was inserted with a special heart, the finder of which would be entitled to a prize. Dwynwen’s day is also celebrated with parties and concerts.
Dwynwen lived in the 5th Century AD and was one of the 25 daughters of St Brychan, a Welsh prince of Brecon. She fell in love with a young man named Maelon but rejected his advances. This, depending on which story you read, was either because she wished to remain chaste and become a nun or because her father wished her to marry another. She prayed to be released from the unhappy love and dreamed that she was given a potion to do this. However the potion turned Maelon to ice. She then prayed that she would be granted three wishes: 1) that Maelon would be revived, 2) that all true lovers find happiness, and that 3) she should never again wish to be married. She then retreated to the solitude of the island to follow the life of a hermit. Dwynwen became known as the patron saint of lovers and pilgrimages were made to her holy well on the island. It was said that the faithfulness of a lover could be divined through the movements of the eels that lived in the well.
This was done by the woman first scattering breadcrumbs over the surface, then laying her handkerchief on the water. If the eel disturbed it then her lover would be faithful. Visitors would leave offerings at her shrine, and so popular was this place of pilgrimage that it became the richest in the area during Tudor times.
This funded a substantial chapel that was built in the 16th century on the site of Dwynwen’s original chapel the ruins of which can still be seen today. Following the Reformation, devotions at Dwynwen’s shrine were suppressed and the site itself quickly fell into disrepair, although some pilgrims still came to the island.
However during the 19th century Dwynwen’s fortunes revived. In 1879 a plain cross was erected in her memory on the island and in 1903 a Celtic cross was placed near the ruins of her church.
The rocks around the island are treacherous and because of its situation at the entrance to the Mennai Strait and the increase in the shipping of slate from the ports of Bangor, Caernarfon and Felinhelli a beacon called Twr Bach was built at the top of the island to guide the ships. In the 1800s a more effective lighthouse Twr Mawr which was modelled on the windmills of Anglesey was built nearby.
The older lighthouse has now returned to service after a modern light was placed on top.
During this time cottages were built near the towers to house pilots who guided ships into the Strait. Two of these cottages have been restored, with one housing an exhibition about the local wildlife. From 1840 a lifeboat was also stationed there. It was manned by the pilots as well as volunteers from Newborough; the cannon that was used to summon the lifeboat crew can still be seen near the cottages. During its time up to the closure in 1903 the lifeboat from here saved 101 lives in 35 separate incidents.
Dwynwen’s island is not quite an island it remains attached to the mainland at all but the highest tides. It is reached by driving down through the Newborough nature reserve and walking for over a mile across the sands. On a calm day it is beautiful, on a windy day it is an exhilarating and breath-taking spot. On the day we visited several people had made the pilgrimage across the sands. Yet on the island there was plenty of quiet space for all. Looking out for miles and watching the waves crashing on to the rocks there was a sense of the raw power of creation but also in and around the little church a feeling of timelessness along with a sense that this had been a place of prayer for many centuries.