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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History


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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

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A Visit to Pennant Melangell

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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Reader Comments:

Fay, what a wonderful research experience! Wish I could have been with you. I can't wait to read your new series. We'll look forward to more blogs about it as your characters and their nefarious deeds develop. When will the first book be out? Do you have a title yet?
-Donna, May 26, 2011

What a wonderful article. Even if I never have an opportunity to visit it myself, you brought Pennant Melangell to life for me. Now that, says the reviewer, is good writing. Thank you so much.
-LJR, May 26, 2011

LJ, thank you so much for stopping by! If you haven't had a chance to read any of Fay's books I highly recommend her Susie Fewings series. I've been a fan since years and years ago when I was writing GLASTONBURY and I found her DAUGHTER OF TINTAGEL.
-donna, May 26, 2011

As the other writer who was with Donna when she found your book in St David's cathedral, Wales, I can tell you she was dead chuffed (aka happy!) to see it there and I couldn't resist a comment.

That's a fascinating article and the pictures are great, Fay. About the trees - I imagine you know this, but I found it interesting. Tacitus, when recording the Roman invasion of Britain, records how trees were sacred to the British, so your very ancient yew trees (which are always associated with churchyards) have very likely been a focus of spirituality since pre-Christian times.
-Dolores, May 27, 2011

Yes, can't you just imagine Druids worshipping around that tree!
-Donna, May 27, 2011

Thanks to everyone who responded so positively.
Donna, the provisional title is THE HUNTED HARE.
I am now chewing my fingernails while my agent sorts out the contract with the prospective publisher.
-Fay, May 27, 2011

Can't wait to read it, Fay. You do Celtic *so* well!
-Donna, May 27, 2011

I love Wales (setting of the book I am now trying to place) and I love ancient Britain. I can just imagine the church site. Sounds wonderful. I look forward to your bringing it to life for me.
-LeAnne Hardy, May 27, 2011

Dolores, I was fascinated by the yew trees at Penant Melangell too. It's strange how the unconscious runs ahead of the thinking part of the brain. When I decided that one of my central characters had terminal cancer, I didn't know that yew trees are the source of the cancer drug Taxol. Yew was also the favoured wood for longbows. I hadn't consciously made that connection when I had archery play such a significant part in the mystery.
-Fay, May 27, 2011

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