Sacred Places Journal
20 October, 2001: St. David's: Halfway to Rome
I'm on my way to Rome. Well, halfway to Rome, that is. In medieval times two pilgrimages to St. David's counted as a pilgrimage to Rome. The last stage of the journey is on a bus called The Puffin Express which trundles along tiny winding lanes through gorgeous countryside with many pullings-over and backings-up for tractors and hay wagons. Is there any place in the world, I wonder, with uglier towns and more beautiful countryside than Wales?
Forty-five minutes later, having written the above "ugly town" comment I'm delighted to record that St. David's, the smallest cathedral city in Britain, is entirely charming. I head straight for the Cathedral. But first, the introductory exhibition. "Myth and legend wreathe around St. David: his birth was predicted by Merlin and St. Patrick; he caused the blind to see and revived the dead, the ground rose beneath him as he preached, he fought the devil and won, he chose the leek as the emblem of Wales. . .
The Market Cross: "City Centre", St David's, Wales
"The few known facts are: he was born into an affluent family and dedicated to the church at an early age. He was six feet tall, strong, and believed in self-denial, living on bread and vegetables and drinking only water. As a result he was known as the Waterman, appropriately, as he also stood up to his neck in cold water as a penance." And in the 6th century David established a string of monasteries across the center of Wales from which the nation was Christianized.
St. David's has been a place of Christian worship for 1500 years, one of the oldest episcopal sees in Britain, founded by David in the middle of the 6th century. I stand at the top of a smooth green churchyard which swoops downhill to the cathedral, dotted here and there with crumbling gravestones. The National Youth Choir of Wales is giving a concert in the cathedral tonight. The national youth are taking an exuberant break from rehearsals as I descend the 39 Articles--the steps named for the similarly-numbered articles of religion of the Anglican Church.
St. David's Cathedral, from atop the 39 Articles
Inside I gaze at the solid Norman grey stone pillars supporting arches below the lovely celestory windows and on up at the exceptional wooden roof and gleaming newly-restored organ on the rood screen. A welcomer explains that this is the "new ceiling" as it was installed in 1530. But I hurry on up the aisle--literally up as the nave, built at the foot on a hill, slopes upward--to find the chest containing the bones long reputed to be those of St. David. To the left of the high altar is the remains of the shrine of St. David, built in 1275, but destroyed at the reformation: three simple Gothic arches remain, decorated with carved heads.
It's so extraordinary, to build a cathedral in a hollow--to protect it from sea raiders--if the guidebooks have it right. I stand outside in the driveway and look down on the lichen-encrusted stones with crows cawing around the tower, and beyond to woods and sheep-grazed fields. It's just so startlingly rural--and all bathed by clear, golden sunshine.
Back side of St. David's Cathedral
Time for tea, I think--a Welsh cream tea, to be exact: tea, scone, homemade apricot jam, thick, yellow clotted cream, and bararith (a Welsh raisin cake--or as the English would say, a sultana slice). All for £3.
Refreshed, I go on to the Bishop's Palace, "A very grand and stately building" in its day. Now in ruins. In the 14th century Bishop Gower built this, the most remarkable house of his generation on a rather modest income. The ruins are well presented with two interpretive exhibitions in the undercroft and all the grand halls and chapels constructed around a large open courtyard there to be clambored through and explored--including three turrets reached by narrow, corkscrew stairways. If only my sons were here--what fun they would have in this most welcoming medieval ruin. In the spirit of it all I purchase two suits of "chainmail armor" for my grandsons for Christmas.
Back to the cathedral for quiet Evening prayers, spoken, mostly in English. This is my first experience with a bilingual prayer book: left page Welsh, right page English. Then the National Youth Choir concert. Think a whole choir of budding Charlotte Churches and Brian Terfyls singing Taverner's "Song for Athene" and Schubert's Mass in G. A treat of an evening.