Wales is a land steeped in history and holiness, from mysterious prehistoric sites to shrines of the early Celtic saints.
In fairy tales, all the best adventures begin with an out-of-the-blue invitation. Mine came when I got an email message from a woman in Wales who follows my work. “Come with me to Wales and we’ll tour sacred sites together,” she said.
Now I’m not recommending that you go off with strangers you meet on the internet—bad things can happen with that—but in my case, accepting Jenifer’s invitation was a very good thing indeed. For two weeks in June we wandered through ruined abbeys, marveled at prehistoric standing stones, dipped our hands into sacred wells, and walked our legs off on coastal paths. Along the way I fell in love with the mystical beauties of Wales, a land of stories, soul, song, and myth.
Most of the sacred places we visited fell into two broad categories: prehistoric sites and those connected to Christianity, especially the early Celtic Christian period in the fifth and sixth centuries.
Read on for an introduction to these magical places (the links lead to more detailed information).
Prehistoric Sites in Wales
Bryn Celli Ddu: This Neolithic burial chamber on Anglesey Island is one of the most significant prehistoric sites in Wales.
Tre’r Ceiri Hill Fort: High atop a promontory on the Llŷn Peninsula is one of the most spectacular and best-preserved Iron Age hill forts in Britain.
Pentre Ifan: In Pembrokeshire, a “floating stone” sits atop a mysterious marker that frames the Preseli Hills where the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried.
Druid’s Circle: In northwestern Wales, this prehistoric ring of stones has a dramatic setting overlooking the coast.
Celtic Christian Sites in Wales
Christianity was brought to Britain by the Romans, but the new faith tended to be clustered in just a few of their towns. After the Roman occupation ended, it was the Celtic Saints who spread word of the Gospel. The traveled the western seaways linking Wales with the rest of the Celtic world, which included Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man and southwest Scotland.
These early Celtic Saints were a quirky, fascinating lot. There’s St. Bueno, who restored the head of his niece after it had been chopped off by a prince, and St. David (the patron saint of Wales), who performed miracles before he was even born.
Most of these figures were never formally designated as saints, but instead were designated by popular acclaim. Many were wanderers and ascetics, drawing inspiration from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of third-century Egypt. Some founded monastic communities that served the larger community and helped keep literacy and the arts alive after the collapse of the Roman Empire. One indication of their influence is the many place names in Wales derived from saints, from St. Brides and Llanbadarn to Merthyr Tydfil.
In their search for “thin places” where the veil between worlds is permeable, these saints were drawn to islands, cliffs, and other isolated spots. There they found rich inspiration in the natural world, including developing a kinship with their fellow creatures. I love the charming stories of Celtic saints making friends with animals ranging from otters and ducks to horses and hounds, which many of the saints seemed to prefer to the company of people.
Celtic Christian spirituality has had a rebirth in places that include Iona in Scotland and Lindisfarne in England. The Welsh sites I visited aren’t as well-known as these pilgrimage destinations, but they’re equally rich in history and holiness. In fact, they have an added appeal because of their isolation. Visit Rome or Jerusalem—or even Iona—and you’ll be rubbing elbows with many people. Visit many of these places and you’re likely to have only a few sheep to keep you company.
Here’s a selection of the most significant Celtic Christian sites in Wales (click on the links for more information):
St. David’s Cathedral and St. Non’s Chapel: Named for the patron saint of Wales, St. David’s Cathedral has been a site of Christian worship for more than 1,500 years.
Bardsey Island: This peaceful island at the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula may well be the most sacred site in all of Wales.
St. Winefride’s Well and Shrine: In North Wales, this holy well that is said to have miraculous properties is the oldest continually visited pilgrimage site in Britain.
Llanddwyn Island: At the southwestern tip of Anglesey Island, this magical, windswept Island is home to a shrine to St. Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers.
St. Govan’s Chapel: This remote, picturesque stone chapel clings to the side of a cliff on the Pembrokeshire coast.
St. Illtud’s Church at Llantwit Major: St. Illtud’s Church in South Wales stands on what was once one of the earliest centers for learning in the British Isles—a kind of university of Celtic saints.
St. Seiriol’s Well: One of the most beautiful sacred springs in Wales is St. Seiriol’s Well, located on the site of a sixth-century monastery on Anglesey Island.
The Llangernyw Yew Tree: The oldest yew tree in Wales (and one of the oldest living things in the world) grows outside St. Digain’s Church in North Wales.
St. Cybi’s Well: On the Llŷn Peninsula, St. Cybi’s Well has long been reputed to have healing properties.
Additional Christian Sites in Wales
Tintern Abbey: On the bank of the River Wye on the border between Wales and England, the hauntingly beautiful ruins of a medieval abbey have inspired artists, poets and travelers for centuries.
Mary Jones World: In Snowdonia National Park, this exhibition tells of a young Welsh girl whose search for a Bible of her own had far-reaching consequences.
Walking Pilgrimages in Wales
North Wales Pilgrim’s Way:
A wonderful way to explore Celtic Christian heritage in Wales is to follow the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way, a kind of Welsh Camino. It begins at Basingwerk Abbey and ends 130 miles later on Bardsey Island, where 20,000 saints are said to be buried. If you’re walking, the route takes about two weeks. The journey winds through woods, along coastal paths, up mountains, across streams and beaches, and through villages. You can do it by yourself or join an annual pilgrimage that begins on the U.K.’s May Bank Holiday each year (see link for details).
Offa’s Dyke Path:
Another option for a walking pilgrimage is Offa’s Dyke Path, a 177-mile National Trail that runs for much of the border between Wales and England. The route connects many spiritual sites.
Ian Bradley’s Following the Celtic Way: A New Assessment of Celtic Christianity provides an overview of the spiritual beliefs and practices of early Celtic spirituality and its influence today.
In A Pilgrimage Around Wales, Anne Hayward describes her three months of traveling on foot to visit some of the holiest sites in Wales.
Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality, by J. Philip Newell, shows how Celtic traditions on the essential goodness of creation and of humanity can shape modern belief.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Holy Rover, Near the Exit, The Soul of the Family Tree, and Every Step Is Home. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.Share This!