“Here heaven and earth come close together,
here the small and the frightened find shelter and hope.”
– A.M. Allchin, A Pilgrim’s Prayer
I’ve wanted to make a pilgrimage to Pennant Melangell since I met the Priest Guardian of the shrine, Rev’d Lynette Norman, on a course in which we both participated earlier this year. Although I know North Wales pretty well, spending lots of childhood holidays there and with more recent visits to retreat venues, I’d never heard of St Melangell or the shrine church that honours her.
Since my chats with Lynette I’d had a couple of those strange “coincidences” in quick succession that prompted this visit: I’d picked up a novel in Liverpool that has Pennant Melangell as its setting (Fay Sampson’s The Hunted Hare) and I’d begun reading Andrew Jones’ book on Pilgrimage that features, well, Pennant Melangell. Three such encounters in the space of a couple of weeks probably is a good indication of a journey one is supposed to make. So on a glorious day in July two friends and I set out on our journey: one of us Russian Orthodox (Melangell is pre-1054 and the Great Schism), one Anglican with Buddhist heritage and practice and one Interfaith enthusiast who lives up a mountain in Sri Lanka for the most of each year. Quite a spiritual and quirky mix but all are welcome at Pennant as we found out!
The shrine has been a place of pilgrimage for more than a thousand years and is located in the secluded and beautiful setting of the Tanat Valley between Oswestry and Bala. The shrine church is cradled in the palm of several hills, surrounded by 2000 year old yews, and is very special. Some places seem soaked in prayer and this is definitely one of them. There are pilgrim liturgies said every day, whether there are pilgrims present or not, and there is a particular emphasis on healing with the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. Intercessory prayers are made for the many contacts that the Church in Wales Priest receives each day from around the world. The service we attended was very moving and, surprisingly, even had a tailored sermon although only we three (and God) were present. We felt part of something particular but universal.
The impressive 12th Century shrine in the sanctuary of the church contains the 7th Century relics of St Melangell and has undergone much reconstruction and restoration. It is Romanesque in style and similar in shape to those found in some grand medieval cathedrals.
A leaflet at the church explains that “The legend of Melangell derives from two 17th Century transcripts of a lost medieval Life of the Saints. One day a prince named Brochwel was hunting at a place called Pennant. His hounds raised a hare that took refuge in a thicket. On pursuit, the prince found a virgin praying, with the hare hiding under the folds of her garment. The hounds were urged on but fled howling; their huntsman raised his horn to his lips and was unable to remove it. The virgin informed the prince that she dwelt at his place, and that she had fled here for refuge. So impressed was the prince by Melangell’s godliness that he granted the valley to her and here she founded a religious community.”
Near the church is the St Melangell Centre which is used for the ministry of healing and for Quiet Days. There’s a very active programme of day courses and retreats. Although it was Lynette’s afternoon off she insisted that we join her for lunch at the centre and we were able to enjoy her great hospitality and the beauty of the views from the centre’s immaculate bird-filled gardens. This really is a very special place and Lynette and her husband are very fortunate to live and work in such a beautiful location. St Melangell’s shrine is wonderfully served by them, too. All three of us felt touched by our visit.