By Fay Sampson ~ May 26, 2011
Researching books can take you to some wonderful places. Some years ago, I was at a course on Celtic history and beliefs in North Wales. One of our field trips took us to a medieval pilgrimage site at the end of the road in the Berwyn Mountains.
I was immediately impressed with the peace of the place. The level meadows around the River Tanat at the foot of the steep mountainsides have a timeless air. There is the small church, with a wooden bell turret scarcely rising above the slate roof. A handful of cottages, and that is it. It’s beyond the reach of mobile phones.
When I was invited to write a new crime series, I thought of setting the books in my favourite sacred places around the British Isles. I decided that the first one should be Pennant Melangell.
The legend of St Melangell is that the Prince of Powys and his retinue were hunting a hare. When they ran it to earth in a thicket, the hounds backed off howling. Pressing through the bushes the prince found a woman sitting with the hare hiding under her skirt. She said she was a princess from Ireland who had fled to Wales to escape a forced marriage, and had been living hidden in the valley ever since. The prince was so impressed with her courage and compassion that he gave her land to found a community of women, and ordered that hares were never to be hunted in the valley again.
When Melangell died, a shrine grew up around her grave. It became the site of pilgrimage.
The first things you notice as you approach the church are the five massive yew trees around the circular churchyard. A circular church site is usually a sign of a Celtic monastery or hermitage, but this site is older than that. It was probably a Bronze Age sacred place, long before the church was built. Some of the yew trees are 2000 years old.
Today the medieval church has a cobbled apse with a rough grave slab. The bones beneath date from the 7th century, and are almost certainly Melangell’s.
In the chancel of the church, behind the small altar, is a stone-canopied shrine, supported on low pillars. It was smashed at the time of the Reformation. Pieces were later recovered from ditches and farms around, and the shrine was reassembled.
The base is heaped with cards, recording candles which have been lit for those in need of healing, and names which have been recorded in the Book of Remembrance.
Pennant Melangell has a tradition as a healing centre. We timed our visit to be there for the weekly Eucharist and healing service on Thursday at noon.
In the tradition of Celtic hospitality we were invited back for lunch at the St Melangell Centre, created from an old stone cottage. Here people can come for day retreats, or for counselling and therapy.
The challenge now is to write something of that magic and mystery into the novel.
Fay Sampson (UK) is a writer of adult and children's fiction and non-fiction, including A MALIGNANT HOUSE, #2 in the Susie Fewings series, a British Crime Club Pick.
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