where the long reach
of the peninsula
is black in a sea
aghast with gazing
from Blodeuwedd by Gillian Clarke
Sadly I was leaving Laugharne in Wales last week just as the pilgrims were arriving. Pilgrimage and walking in general seems to be the thing to do this year, ticking all the right boxes for participation – eco friendly, multicultural, spiritual, healthy excercise – physical and mental. We have had the first ever exhibition about the Hajj, at the British Museum, a substitute of sorts for pilgrims to Mecca (although the only walking involved was around the exhibition), which drew Muslims, particularly, from far and wide. There are major Hindu pilgrimages taking place in the Himalayas at present. These are long distance affairs drawing those of the relevant faith from all over the world. Wales has also this year had its 870 mile coastal path inaugurated and other trails such as the Cistercian Way have been developed.
Now Pilgrimage 2012 is reviving the pilgrimage route to St David’s in South West Wales, which if completed twice in medieval times used to be the equivalent in religious terms of one journey to Rome. Beginning at Llanthony Priory in the Welsh borders 22 days previously a group of artists and storytellers, accompanied by local ramblers, arrived at St David’s on the 7th July, having passed ancient sites, holy wells and Cadw monuments on the way. Inevitably in 2012 this, a part of Power of the Flame, turns out to be funded through the Legacy Trust UK ”creating a lasting impact from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games by funding ideas and local talent to inspire creativity across the UK.” This is seen as a way to involve other parts of the UK in what is ultimately a London centred event. The journey of the Olympic torch around the country is another form of pilgrimage.
The Celtic nations have long been famed for their storytelling, often at the expense of visual culture, and Cauldrons and Furnaces (Crochan a Ffwrnais) as this Welsh project (which includes Pilgrimage 2012) is called is “finding new ways of relating people to places and the specialness of localities.” So here we have another current preoccupation, which I have discussed here before, the ‘spirit of place’. The project aims to “tell extraordinary stories in extraordinary places” (ie Cadw sites - those run by the Welsh government’s historic environment service, the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage) and is doing this by harnessing Welsh history and identity.
The Pilgrimage route is a kind of adjunct to events, performances and workshops at eight Cadw sites (which apart from castles includes Blaenavon Ironworks, which is also a World Heritage Site) at which I could have collected stamps for my passport, a Cultural Olympiad Challenge and the opportunity to win a Cadw family membership!
I was only able to visit Laugharne Castle for Talacharn Trails and Tales, an enjoyable if fairly low key experience. A trail around the town and the castle with audio tales, often linked to visual installations, at various spots, it probably meant more to me than the average visitor as I have long standing family connections with Laugharne. However it was the culmination of a lot of community involvement and included 200 Twitter stories written by local children as well as stories from local residents. According to the publicity leaflet “a talent for storytelling is in the genes of Laugharne”, so there is hope for me yet. Dylan Thomas poems full of local references were animated and local history films were added to the stories.
The gazebo, where Richard Hughes (author of High Wind to Jamaica) wrote when he lived in Castle House, was one of the points where local stories could be heard.
The tale of Blodeuwedd from the Mabinogion, the woman made from flowers who was turned into an owl as a punishment for her adultery, could be heard in a tower in the castle and her giant head overlooked us.
There was a bit of a flower theme running through the tales and trails which I might elaborate on in a later post. Plaques depicted local flora and QR codes gave hints on historical and local medicinal uses.
Outside the castle coracles were being made by local people – maybe to help out the pilgrims? Until recently there were still a few licensees allowed to fish from coracles on the River Taf which flows into Carmarthen Bay at Laugharne.
There seems to have been relatively little publicity for these events, although it is possible to track them down in local papers and the occasional Facebook and Twitter postings. I guess this is the nature of cultural competition these days and maybe in keeping with the aim to relate people to places. As a corollary (or antidote?) to the nationalism of the Olympics this should be applauded - as John Dewey said in 1927, as quoted in The Lure of the Local by Lucy Lippard,
“Whatever the future may have in store, one thing is certain; unless local communal life can be restored, the public cannot adequately solve its most urgent problems – to find and identify itself.”
One way of doing this is by looking at our local area, to quote William Least Heat Moon, again in The Lure of the Local.
“Whenever we enter the land, sooner or later we pick up the scent of our own histories.”
Sometimes we need pilgrims to guide us.