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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Visiting Pennant Melangell, an ancient Welsh church in what is an even older sacred site

'It's difficult to know what it is about this shrine and this valley that appeals so much. Is it the simple story of a good woman? Is it the fact that people feel that praying to her can bring about results? Is it simply the glorious, unspoilt setting that instantly transports us back, almost, to her time here because it is relatively unchanged?
Whatever the reason - and I guess it must be a combination of all those factors - there's no denying this place has an incredible appeal. It's one of the places that's moved me most. I didn't expect shrines to really get under my skin at all but this place has been described as one of Britain's holiest places and I, for one, am inclined to agree'

Ifor ap Glyn, presenting 'Shrines', an episode of the BBC documentary 'Pagans and Pilgrims; Britain's Holiest Places'

pennant melangell church

Pennant Melangell is a small church located at the top of the Tanat valley near Llangynog in Wales, on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park. Parts of the current building are 800 years old, although there has apparently been a church here for 1200 years and the circular wall around the graveyard hints that it was built on a Bronze Age site that is far, far older. Excavations in the last ten years have found evidence of these earlier burials.

Many early churches were built on sacred pagan sites. If people attached special sacred significance to a place, it was easier to put a church there and change its focus than to stop them visiting it, a fact that was officially recognised by Pope Gregory in 601AD.

Perhaps there are still-living witnesses to the pre-Christian site at Pennant Melangell - huge, ancient yew trees that grow around the edge of the churchyard. It's almost impossible to accurately age very old yew trees because of the way that they grow, but it isn't hard to imagine that these could well have been here from the time that the earliest church was built, if not before.



This is the only church dedicated to Saint Melangell. She was a princess in the 7th century, who escaped from an unwanted marriage proposal in Ireland to live as a hermit in the valley. One day, a prince named Brochwel Ysgithrog was hunting hares when one ran under the skirt of Melangell. The pursuing hounds ran away howling. The prince was so impressed that he gave Melangell the valley, to keep as a place of sanctuary. This story is portrayed in woodcarvings on a screen in the church, which were carved in 1450.


The church was recently in such disrepair that there were plans to take off the roof and let it go to ruin. Luckily, the local diocese and people didn't support that, so it has been restored and is now a very beautiful sanctuary space.

People have come here for centuries to pray at Melangell's shrine for help with their problems. As Ifor ap Glyn points out, ' There's no denying the emotional energy that you can feel channeling through the place. There's the pain but also hope. It's very moving'.

Even if (like me) it isn't a Christian faith that brings you there, there is definitely something special about Pennant Melangell.


Pilgrims have left offerings around the building; including the ancient, faded marks of shoes carved onto gravestones outside and more recent carvings of hares in stone, by Meical Watts, which are displayed around the walls.


The shrine was destroyed during the Reformation, but was rebuilt when the church was restored in 1958 using original pieces that were found in the walls of the church buildings. During the more recent restoration begun in 1988, the shrine was moved from the small room known as Cell-y-Bedd to its current location. Some bits are missing and are marked by plain concrete ('honest repair'), but the shrine is pretty much the same as it was before, raised up on columns so that people can pray and leave offerings beneath the remains of the saint. It is thought to be the oldest example of a Romanesque shrine in Northern Europe and is the only one to survive in Britain.


Next to it is a fragment of a very old wall painting that has been preserved. It was probably painted before the thirteenth century.


During the restoration twenty-five years ago, the bones of a woman from about the time that Melangell lived were discovered beneath a large stone in the floor of a small, semi circular room on the Eastern end of the church, along with a second grave.


This room, known as Cell-y-Bedd, was built in the 18th century and rebuilt in 12th century style during the restoration begun in 1988. ap Glyn notes that it was built on semi-circular footings of an apse that were much older. Early Christian churches also used this semi-circular area in their layout, so the room could have been the rebuilding of an original, much older feature. The bones have now been placed in the rebuilt shrine.

There are many other curiosities at Pennant Melangell, including a wooden candelabra from 1733, a 12th century font and the 'Giant's Rib', a huge bone displayed against on one wall. It looks like a whale rib, but one story relates that it was found in Melangell's tomb, another (probably more reliably) says that it was found 'on the mountain between Bala and Pennant Melangell'. What would a huge rib bone be doing on a Welsh mountainside with no rocks there that could possibly hold such remains as fossils? You can make up your own tales about that one...


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